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On Top of the Game in Floodplain Management

FORT COLLINS, CO – On July 28, 1997, Fort Collins was devastated by the Spring Creek flood that claimed the lives of five people and injured 54 more. Causing more than $200 million in damages, it destroyed 200 homes and damaged 1,500 homes and businesses.

Fort Collins is located on the Cache La Poudre River with the potential for flooding from Spring Creek, Dry Creek, Fossil Creek, Cooper Slough and Boxelder Creek. Before the 1997 flood, city officials had completed $5 million in mitigation measures, actions that were credited with saving lives.

But it wasn’t enough. City officials took action to come up with more comprehensive measures by adopting a master mitigation plan, according to Marsha Hilmes-Robinson, floodplain manager for Fort Collins.

“There are a lot of tools in the tool box to use. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. We need to use different mitigation strategies within different areas to better protect the city,” said Hilmes-Robinson.

Stormwater projects were partially funded by FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program. “One of our stormwater improvement projects included a series of improvements on the Spring Creek basin,” said Hilmes-Robinson. “Basically, we constructed three areas of stormwater detention basins that were designed to store water from flash floods and release the stormwater at a slower rate as it traveled downstream.”

After the 1997 flood, grants were available for individual projects such as window-well protection, closure shields for basements, and the elevation of furnaces and hot water heaters.

These projects provided an immediate fix and protected homes and property, especially in the Old Town area.

“It was a life safety issue as well as a property damage reduction issue,” said Hilmes-Robinson. “Every two years Old Town got flooded because drainage was so poor. However, a stormwater project has now remedied that problem.”

The city’s successful mitigation activities also included stormwater management, flood-proofing acquisitions such as vacant land and private property, community education and outreach, training, and a fully functioning emergency notification system.

Fort Collins is a Class 4 community in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System because its floodplain management activities exceed minimum standards.

Fort Collins is the only city in Colorado—and one of only four in the country—with this high rating.

Fort Collins has spent close to $50 million on mitigation, said Matthew Fater, special projects manager at Fort Collins. The city also has identified other mitigation projects for future construction. The funding comes from stormwater utility fees. The fees are a part of residents’ utility bills and average around $14.26 a month.

A few successful programs, described below, paid big dividends in protecting life and property during the September 2013 floods:

  • The ‘Willing Buyer – Willing Seller’ program in which the owner sells a property to the city, “providing a way out for a property owner who couldn’t sell or who didn’t want to sell through the normal market,” says Hilmes-Robinson.
    • The result: “We have targeted both residential and commercial structures located in the floodway, but only residential structures located in the flood fringe outside the floodway,” she said. “Before the September flood hit, we had purchased two residential and two commercial structures – three of which have been demolished. These structures surely would have been damaged in the flood. The remaining structure had eight inches of water in the basement.”
  • Legacy Park, a land acquisition near the Cache la Poudre River.
    • The result: The area was completely inundated during the 2013 flooding, but the park’s open space allowed the water to spread out and slow down.
  • A ban on unanchored floatable materials in the Poudre River 100-year floodplain, targeted at commercial properties.
    • The result: “During a flood event, we expect to see a lot of floating debris,” said Hilmes-Robinson. “During the September flood, there was hardly any.”
  • A once-a-year table top exercise, with a simulation of a flood event. Various city departments, such as stormwater management, emergency management operations, police, fire, maintenance, communications, roads and bridges and sheriff, are all included.
    • The result: The flood warning system was activated for the September flood. Three neighborhoods were evacuated as a precaution. “Had we not conducted this annual exercise, handling the2013 flood event would have been hectic,” Fater said.

“The bottom line is mitigation works. We don’t know when and we don’t know where the next flood is going to happen. But we do know that it will happen,” said Hilmes-Robinson.

“We need to prepare ahead of time and all those preparations will pay off in the end. We have to learn from the past. Now is the time to prepare.”

“Projects have to basically be looked upon as long-term investments. Return on investment comes over time in terms of lives protected and property damages that were prevented,” said Fater.

“We do them because they have a good return on investments. They are not short-term fixes. They have long-term benefits.”

For additional information, visit: http://www.fcgov.com/flooding and www.fema.gov/hazard-mitigation-assistance-grant-program.

Last updated Jun 3, 2020