The following is a recent article by Chris Sturm (CWCB Stream Restoration Coordinator and CRA Board Member) for the Colorado Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA CO) describing the flood recovery process on the Front Range as a result of the September 2013 flood event. It includes information on short-term stream restoration efforts that occurred immediately following the flood, the master planning process and formation of local watershed coalitions, and funding sources for future restoration activities, such as the Watershed Resilience Program.
In 2013, Colorado suffered from disastrous flooding that had devastating impacts on the state. On September 11, 2013, a prolonged rain event caused a destructive flood event throughout many parts of Colorado. This weather pattern was characterized by only moderate, short-tem intensity, but occurred for medium and long durations; the rainfall experienced in a number of locations exceeded a 1,000-year rainfall event. A number of stream reaches experienced flood episodes equaling or exceeding a 100-year streamflow event. In addition, the long duration of the event resulted in heavy erosion in a number of stream reaches that contributed to flooding in areas outside of the regulatory 100-year floodplain. The end result was the deadliest flood since 1976, the costliest flood in state history, and the first presidentially-declared flood disaster since 1999.
Those impacted by the flooding and erosion were looking for answers to difficult questions in the wake of the floods. Who is responsible for putting the rivers back in the previous alignments? When will they arrive? Will they listen to input from those directly affected? The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), a division of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, immediately put together a team of state and federal agencies to help communities strategize the short- and long-term stabilization and rehabilitation of stream channels. This stream task force advised on all aspects of rehabilitation including: assembling local watershed coalitions, permitting, technical assistance, funding, project design, project prioritization, and project implementation.
The stream task force quickly concluded that no single government entity had jurisdiction over the location of stream channels. The issue was largely an individual property owner decision. It was also determined that a strategy focused on global realignment of channels in their previous locations was not the best path toward creating more resilient stream systems. The locations of the streams needed to be informed through a master planning process, and local watershed coalitions were a vital component of implementing this process. The CWCB, in cooperation with the Colorado Department of Public Safety, developed a special release of the Colorado Watershed Restoration Program. The grant program was designed to provide funding for watershed master planning in flood-affected watersheds. The applicant criteria required that the planning be watershed-based (i.e., transcended political boundaries), and that the applicants commit to collaborative approaches involving diverse interests within the watershed, with participation open to all.
The watershed master plan grant program was created to guide communities toward prioritization and implementation of stream restoration projects that improved ecological conditions as well as protecting life and property from flood hazards. The primary objectives of the plan were to develop conceptual channel designs, cost estimates, and project prioritization. Conceptual design of stream channels focused on alignment at different flow elevations, including low-flow channel design, average high water flow, and flood flows. Low-flow channel design is a critical element to consider as it addresses habitat conditions. Average high water or “bankfull” flows are integral in influencing a stream channel’s geometry. These flows are considered to occur every one to two years. Finally, a 100-year or greater flood flow design contemplates the entire river corridor, including the active channel and surrounding floodplain. Other elements of the master plans included channel stabilization strategies, floodplain preservation and restoration, aquatic and terrestrial habitat restoration, wetland restoration, flood control, water supply diversion reconstruction, utility protection, and road and bridge protection.
As a result of this program, ten watershed coalitions were formed. Each submitted successful applications for master planning, hired planning consultants, and began an open dialogue with various interested parties to plan the rehabilitation of the streams in their watershed. Watershed coalitions formed in the following flood-affected watersheds: Fish Creek (Estes Park), Fall River (Estes Park), Big Thompson River, Little Thompson River, St. Vrain Creek, Left Hand Creek, Boulder Creek, Fourmile Creek, Middle South Platte River (near Evans), and Fountain Creek.
As the master plans reach completion, these coalitions will look for guidance about funding sources to implement projects identified in their plans. To address these funding issues, the CWCB developed a partnership with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), and this partnership is now spearheading the efforts of the stream task force. DOLA is administering $199 million of Phase II Community Development Block Grants – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This Phase II funding will be used for all aspects of flood recovery including infrastructure, housing, economic development, planning, agriculture, private roads/bridges, and watershed resilience. The Watershed Resilience Program is a pilot program that was proposed by both CWCB and DOLA and was accepted by HUD. It is funded through CDBG-DR funds and includes funding for capacity building in existing watershed coalitions and project implementation. The State of Colorado allocated $25 million for the pilot program.
The primary function of the Watershed Resilience Program is to support the watershed coalitions developed by watershed stakeholders and the CWCB. Capacity building grants will include funding for full-time watershed coordinators, program assistants, and a CWCB/DOLA-managed technical assistance team. Project implementation funding will be used to design and build stream restoration projects and multi-objective projects with a stream restoration component.
The Watershed Resilience Program is the first significant source of grant funds available for watershed coalitions completing their master plans. Other federal, state, local, and private resources will be necessary for the continued implementation of stream restoration projects. The watershed coordinators and their support staff will be tasked with grant writing and fundraising as an essential job duty. The intent of this capacity building portion of the grant is to empower the local watershed groups to successfully implement their master plans by offering the necessary staff and resources. This part of the program was built on the philosopher Maimonides principle, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The CWCB and DOLA are optimistic that the capacity building portion of the grant will help the watershed coalitions achieve success by offering support beyond that covered by short-term federal and state grant programs.