I’m part of a group of citizens helping Boulder city staff on the master plan for stormwater and flood protection work for Boulder’s waterways, other than South Boulder Creek.
Just last week, we had some interesting discussions about whether we should focus more on how to prioritize the many projects that would cost in total hundreds of millions of dollars, or focus more on increasing the near-term funding for these projects to reduce the need to prioritize by doing more projects concurrently rather than sequentially.
To give this some scale, current funding is approximately $7 million annually. City staff predicts that it may take more than 50 years to complete the work, and that upping funding to $11 million per year would allow completion in around 30 to 35 years. The total cost is estimated at roughly $350 million for about 30 projects.
Per the 2014 Flood Impact Survey of those drainages impacted by the 2013 flood, damage was over $176 million in 2014 dollars, about $215 million now.
Flood insurance paid for about 14% of estimated damage, and about 28% of actual claims. Sewer backups and groundwater infiltration caused extensive basement damage not covered by flood insurance, and localized street flooding outside the “100-year” floodplain meant many affected property owners didn’t have flood insurance. Unaccounted damages included cost of being displaced from peoples’ homes and loss in market value.
What pushes me toward moving as quickly as possible is simple logic: The sooner the flood work is done, the less likely it is that a flood will occur before those improvements are made. If not done, flood damage plus potentially more costly flood improvements could close to double the total cost.
For me, this swings the debate toward getting the job done as quickly as reasonably possible. Also, flood insurance is likely to become more and more expensive and less and less available, because climate change is radically increasing both the magnitude and frequency of floods, affecting both FEMA and private insurers.
Trying to prioritize projects is hard. It sounds easy — just do standard cost/benefit analyses. But frequently, both the locations and the values are hard to compare. For some locational examples, where I live, we have King Gulch on one side, which is relatively easy to flood-proof because it’s small, and existing channels handle much of the problem, though it still flooded many houses because some stretches don’t have adequate channels or pipes.
On the other side is Bluebell Creek, which is very difficult to deal with, since it runs mostly in small channels through people’s yards. Other areas have much more complex design issues.
On the “values” side, for example, there are issues around social equity, because just analyzing damage costs puts more emphasis on well-to-do neighborhoods, whereas, for example, using dwelling unit numbers tends to focus more on less well-off areas.
And then there are critical facilities, historic sites, cultural resources and environmental issues to consider and protect. Just sticking numbers on each of these may make the evaluation math look easy, but it avoids facing the incommensurate nature of the underlying values.
Accelerating the process of building the infrastructure doesn’t necessarily require big increases in utility rates. The same work gets done; it’s just a matter of how fast. As an “enterprise fund,” the utility can borrow relatively cheaply and interest rates are still pretty low.
Additional staffing for such a 10- to 20-year project could be experienced engineers looking for an interesting project to fill the time before or during retirement.
The basic sequencing of projects might be:
Life/safety: early warning system with full coverage, street analysis regarding closures, escape routes, etc., with informational brochures supplied to residents.
Sewer pipes and stormwater systems: projects to line, clear, rebuild, etc. These are already scheduled and funds are available.
Flood control: organize the projects, ensuring that they both provide adequate and cost-effective protection (not like the University of Colorado Boulder South Campus, which is neither), while meeting other relevant values.
Bottom line: I don’t think anyone wants to be in the position of dealing with another 2013-size flood, which could happen in any year, and have to say, “We could have prevented the damage to your residence or business on Drainage X, but we didn’t because we didn’t want to raise the fees or borrow the money. But now we need to fix the damage and do the flood improvements, which may be more expensive and extensive.”
So, everything else being equal, faster is better.
Steve Pomerance is a former member of the Boulder City Council. email@example.com
Boulder Daily Camera
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