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Boulder County Adopts Expanded Floodways Mapped by State Despite Protest of Oil and Gas Firm, Residents

July 25, 2018

Boulder County commissioners on Monday voted to accept updated maps outlining updated flood risk assessments along 70 miles of 10 streams for county staff to use in considering land use and development applications within each's floodplain and floodway.

Streams that had floodplains redrawn

Little Thompson River

North St. Vrain Creek

Geer Canyon

James Creek

Left Hand Creek

Lower Fourmile Canyon Creek

Gold Run

Fourmile Creek

Streams that had floodways redrawn

Lower Boulder Creek

St. Vrain Creek

Source: Boulder County Floodplain Program

An attorney for an oil and gas drilling operator accused Boulder County staff Tuesday of influencing the state’s redrawing of the Lower Boulder Creek floodplain to intentionally prevent mineral extraction in the area.

Nick Rising, an attorney representing Crestone Peak Resources, along with about a dozen residents along Left Hand and Lower Boulder creeks, opposed the most recent redrawing of floodplain and floodway maps at a public hearing before Boulder County commissioners.

The re-drawing, which was performed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board with the assistance of Boulder County staff, substantially widened the floodway along portions of Lower Boulder Creek northwest of Erie.

A floodway, where water will be flowing in the event of a flood event, is more heavily regulated land than a floodplain because flood waters there must be prevented from causing an increase of upstream flood elevations.

County commissioners Elise Jones and Deb Gardner voted to adopt the updated maps outlining updated flood risk assessments along 70 miles of 10 streams for county staff to use in considering land use and development applications within each’s floodplain and floodway.

Commissioner Cindy Domenico was absent.

“I would like to address the elephant in the room as far as my client is concerned... The Boulder County Transportation Department and the floodplain development folks don’t want Crestone in Boulder County,” Rising said before the vote.

“However, (the county) is using this floodway as a tool to prevent Crestone from cooperating with the county, they used a technical analysis that has never been used anywhere else by the Colorado Water Conservation Board to include Crestone’s property in the floodway to prevent Crestone from cooperating, and they are going so far as to harm all the citizens that are in the area as well,” he added.

County staff, though, pointed to comments they submitted in reply to Crestone’s initial comprehensive drilling plan drafted last year that alerted the company there was an updated floodway that overlapped with the locations where it planned to put wells on a site known as Wheeler Open Space.

Crestone has endured several delays on gaining approval for the drilling project and drafted five iterations of a comprehensive drilling plan in which it details its goal to drill 56 wells on the Wheeler site.

Kendra Carberry, a resident on Kenosha Road northwest of Erie along the Lower Boulder Creek, along with a handful of her neighbors, opposed their properties being placed in the newly drawn floodway because of the restrictions on building on their land they could face and the prospect of rising flood insurance costs.

“We applaud the efforts to prevent drilling in our area, but we are thrown under the bus here,” Carberry said.

She and others felt blindsided by the new placement of their properties within the floodway after most were only inside the floodplain before the redrawing, and said the county should have performed more outreach to affected property owners to inform them of the changes.

More conservative state regulations adopted within the last decade have led to wider floodways when they are redrawn, and several stream channels shifted during the flood and caused their respective floodplains to change, county Floodplain Program Manager Varda Blum said.

Boulder County regulations prohibit oil and gas development within floodways, but state law is less stringent, allowing for development only if it can be demonstrated that a project will not cause the floodplain to rise.

The redrawn floodplains and floodways — minus those for the Lower Boulder Creek — have already been designated as accurate by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for their approval as “regulatory floodways” that would be added to its Flood Insurance Rate Map.

The analysis technique used to help draw the Lower Boulder Creek floodway that Risinger referred to as “never before used” was the 2-D mapping model used by the state contractor. While the method has not been used to draw a floodway in the state, there have been limited uses of the technique to draw floodplains, Colorado Water Conservation Board engineer Kevin Houck said at a board meeting in Glenwood Springs last week .

The state board delayed its decision on whether to accept the accuracy of the redrawn section of the Lower Boulder Creek floodway contested by Crestone because a state-hired contractor was forced to use a method known as 2-D mapping after a more standard, one-dimensional technique failed to generate a working model in the area.

Because the state board’s staff lacked the expertise and resources to review mapping of the 2-D model, “we kind of had to punt on this one and say we can’t really vouch for the technical adequacy of this, and so therefore the only real option we have is to turn this in to FEMA and let them do it for us,” Houck said.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board will accept the redrawn map for that portion of Lower Boulder Creek after addressing any suggestions made by a FEMA review, but neither the state nor the county expects any of the floodplains and floodways updated by the redrawing project to significantly shift.

County commissioners addressed the concerns of Crestone and residents who requested a delay of the maps’ approval during public comment by noting that they are obligated to adopt the best available information for consideration in land use discussions and that a delay at the county level would not stop FEMA from approving them for its Flood Insurance Rate Map.

“At the end of the day, it’s not our process and these are not our maps. If I thought that we could improve things for you by delaying what we do here today, I would seriously consider that,” Jones said.

To view the updated floodplains and floodways online, visit https://bit.ly/2LnG5Hj .

Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, slounsberry@prairiemountainmedia.com and twitter.com/samlounz .

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