Boulder, Colorado

The Toby Lane Development in Boulder, Colorado, remained undamaged in the 2013 flooding because the homes were elevated 2 feet above the base flood elevation. Courtesy City of Boulder.

CRS Helps Boulder, Colorado, Build Resilience

As the state’s number-one community for flash flood risk, Boulder, Colorado, is no stranger to flood hazard mitigation. The city has a long history of floodplain management planning, dating back to a plan designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead in the early 1900s that indicated the need to preserve the floodplains as natural open space.

The 25-square-mile city is situated at the base of the Rocky Mountains, below a cluster of steep drainageways that can swell dramatically due to spring snowmelt or severe thunderstorms—or both. Boulder is affected by 15 major creeks and flooding is complicated by 23 irrigation channels.

“We have always been aware of the flood hazard, and active in flood damage prevention and protection,” explains Edward Stafford, Development Review Manager for Public Works. Over the years, Boulder evolved a comprehensive floodplain management program that incorporates

  • Planning for how development will or will not occur in floodprone areas;
  • Maintaining the drainage system to keep water moving and clean;
  • Protecting floodprone open space and reclaiming it when possible;
  • Conducting flood studies, producing maps, and maintaining and updating flood data; and
  • Adopting and enforcing strict regulatory standards.

Outdoor activities and natural areas are important to Boulder’s residents, so the community has worked to protect its waterways. Combining these natural features with recreational opportunities such as hiking trails, bikeways, and nature centers, has been an ongoing component of the City’s effort to build resilience and enhance its quality of life.

Because of the high risk of flash floods, Boulder put a priority on a warning system many years ago, and that system has grown more sophisticated as technology has improved. Public awareness campaigns, a website with flood-related information, library holdings, and production of materials directly pertinent to the local flood hazard have helped make people aware of the flood potential

With this background of extensive management of floodprone areas, “Entering the Community Rating System was a logical next step for us,” explains Stafford. Boulder entered the CRS in 1992 as a Class 8 and has steadily increased its CRS-credited work to achieved a Class 5 in 2012.

The flood insurance policy holders in Boulder have realized total annual flood insurance premium reductions of over a half million dollars by virtue of Boulder’s CRS rating. This savings has been a selling point to the City Council for implementation of and improvements to the credited components of the floodplain management program.

“But just as important—if not more so—the CRS discount has been a big help in deterring efforts to diminish or “tweak” existing regulatory standards,” Stafford observes. If the standards are altered so that the CRS rating goes down, residents will lose their flood insurance discounts.

One clear example of the mitigation benefits of Boulder’s program can be seen at the Toby Lane Development, which was planned for an area within the newly re-mapped floodplain of South Boulder Creek. The City started regulating development in the remapped floodplain even before the map was approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Houses were required to meet the local higher freeboard standard of 2 feet above 100-year flood elevation. Because the homes were elevated, they remained undamaged in the 2013 flood.

Boulder’s progressive outlook about building community resilience, protecting the environment, and minimizing flood damage has been strengthened by the CRS, according to Stafford, because the CRS provides support, encouragement, and incentives to greater enhance those undertakings. “The CRS has been a great complement to our ongoing efforts to forge a resilient and hazard-resistant community,” Stafford concludes.

Editor’s note: This is just a snapshot of the numerous floodplain management and CRS activities being carried out in Boulder. For more details, see the city’s website.