By Mollie Putzig
Below the canyon bridges and mountain roads destroyed by the 2013 floods, the city of Boulder watched floodwaters rise from the surface of the Earth.
The city of Boulder has the highest flood risk in all of Colorado, so there was no disillusionment about what could happen. Recovery has been ongoing since the afternoon the flood began.
“We’ve spent a lot of money mitigating flood risks,” said Chris Meschuk, flood recovery coordinator for the city of Boulder. “In just the last 15 years it’s over 40 million dollars.”
A year’s worth of rain came down over the county in eight days. The city of Boulder alone suffered $27.6 million of damage to infrastructure. While floodwaters raged, city officials focused on protecting people and keeping utilities running.
“One of the things that was the most incredible was the response from city employees to do whatever needed to be done to assist the community in recovering,” Meschuk said.
Water rushed into the treatment plant faster than it could be treated, so one of the city’s water treatment plants shut down. The other lost power. Soon the second plant was running out of diesel fuel, but landslides blocked the road so fuel trucks couldn’t pass. If the fuel ran out, water supply to Boulder would cease. That would leave 100,000 people without water for at least two weeks. Residents cooperated with city employees, allowing their land to be used to navigate an alternate route to the plant.
When the rain stopped, water and sewer pipeline repairs were on the top of the docket.
“Some of our water supply pipelines up in the mountains were essentially hanging off the side of the mountain because there had been landslides,” Meschuk said.
Work crews rushed to stabilize pipelines to maintain water service to the city. The flood knocked out water service in Lyons and a water district between Boulder and Longmont, but Boulder prevailed.
A section of Boulder’s main sewer pipe that runs parallel to Boulder Creek was left hanging in midair. If the line failed, 90 percent of Boulder’s wastewater would have dumped directly into the creek.
“That was a really really urgent thing to get fixed and stabilized,” Meschuk said. One contractor worked two days nonstop to stabilize the pipe.
Boulder was third in the county for the worst housing damage, after Lyons and Jamestown, with 7000 houses damaged or destroyed. A third of the households statewide that applied for FEMA assistance are in the city of Boulder.
“Recovery is local,” said Garry Sanfaçon, Boulder County flood recovery manager. “The extent of the disaster in the community and the philosophy of the community navigate how they will respond.”
In Longmont, damage was localized around the overflowing banks of the St. Vrain River.
“They were able to do an effective job of focusing resources to assist those areas that were damaged versus here in Boulder it was all over the city, so a lot of our outreach had to be blanket outreach to everybody across the city,” Meschuk said. “We held neighborhood meetings rotating across the city as a resource fair for people, but we didn’t have the direct contacts into neighborhoods in a more coordinated way like Longmont.”
Paying for flood recovery is challenging. “The local entity has to pay for repairs up front,”Sanfaçon said. “And then in a presidential disaster like this they are later reimbursed by state and federal agencies.”
Extensive savings allowed Boulder to progress with repairs faster than other areas of the county. Every department in the city is required to reserve 15 percent of their funds in case of emergencies like this.
“We’re about 63% complete with repairs from the flood,” Meschuk said.
But Boulder is far from finished. There are 30 housing units that are still uninhabitable, which means 30 families are essentially homeless. Sections of sewer pipe are still exposed and need to be stabilized. Projects along the creek need to go through environmental review before work can begin. Open space and mountain parks don’t qualify for FEMA assistance, so they need alternate funding.
JB Haabs is a member of the Front Range Climbing Stewards, a group created to help with trail maintenance. He began work in El Dorado, along with Ben Plankis, Aaron Mojica and Matt Toensing, repairing trails damaged by the flood. They are currently working on the Royal Arch Trail in Chautauqua. Haabs said that as a rock climber he felt responsible for environmental upkeep of the trails he uses.
The city is increasing utility rates to complete repairs and toughen infrastructure against future floods. The proposed 2015 budget included a 5 percent increase in water rates, 30 percent in sewer rates and 75 percent in stormwater management rates.
The stormwater and flood management utility was about to begin construction on a $20 million project when the flood interrupted. They redirected the $15 million they had saved to remove sediment and debris from the 15 waterways that flow through the city. Increased utility rates will replace their savings to get the project back on track.
During the flood, groundwater seeped into old leaky sewer pipes, which caused sewer backups in 700 to 900 homes in Boulder. A program to upgrade the 160 miles of sewer pipe to prevent future backups was expected to take 90 years. Increasing the wastewater utility will shorten that to 20 years.
“Every government’s on its own just like every individual household is kinda on their own,” Meschuk said.
While the city of Boulder held its own, the county floundered. “Boulder County suffered significant damage especially in their roads and bridges, and they have a really, really significant financial shortfall,” Meschuk said.
Ballot issue 1A proposes a modest sales tax that would generate $49 million over five years. The tax will fix roads, bridges and restore streams in Boulder County’s unincorporated areas.
The tax would bring in money from visitors to the area. Lee Berg, campaign manager for Yes On 1A, said, “I’m told by a friend in the city of Boulder that approximately 50 percent of the sales taxes raised in the city of Boulder comes from individuals who don’t live in Boulder County.”
“We will all benefit from putting our residents back on their feet from the flood, rebuilding our roads and bridges and restoring our creeks,” Commissioner Elise Jones said at a Boulder City Council meeting. “It goes without saying that we can’t do this without the city of Boulder. It’s not possible to pass a tax increase in our county without the enthusiastic support of Boulder voters.”
Video By Mollie Putzig and RoxAnn Mulligan
Ben Plankis: Yeah, well my name is Ben Plankis and I’m technically the crew lead of the crew, which means I’m kinda responsible for some of the day to day operations of the project. And currently we’re working on the Royal Arch project, which was washed out in the 2013 flood.
JB Haabs: You’ll see it’s only a 15-foot section that’s causing this, maybe 400-foot reroute.
RoxAnn Mulligan: The damaged section of the Royal Arch trail may only extend 15 feet, but it’s a perilous stretch above a steep ravine. The 2013 floods caused 217 million dollars in damage across Boulder County. Even after reimbursement from state and federal agencies a 56 million dollar shortage will remain. Ballot issue 1A imposes a modest sales tax that will allow the county to complete outstanding recovery projects.