South CU Campus


The Boulder Waterkeeper position is that the South CU Campus should be preserved for flood mitigation and open space and future CU development needs to be done in some other location. 

Problem Statement

How to protect and restore 308-acres of largely undeveloped land in the South Boulder Creek historic floodplain, currently owned by the University of Colorado Boulder, river corridors in a manner that fulfills the city’s responsibility to protect residents from floods and its commitment to protect ecosystems through Open Space designations and other means. The land is under the jurisdiction of Boulder County and would have to be annexed into the City of Boulder in order for development to occur.

Quick History

Both the City of Boulder and Boulder County identified the area for acquisition and Open Space protection as early as the late 1970s. A citizen group formed to advocate for protection of the land.

Despite their efforts to purchase it from the gravel company that mined it for years, CU bought the property in 1996 for 50 percent over the asking price of $11 million.

Since then, the County, under whose jurisdiction the land falls, has only allowed construction of outdoor tennis courts, which CU built.

The site currently lacks any utility services and cannot be developed further unless or until the City annexes it.

After purchasing the land, CU also bulldozed wetlands, installed drainage pipes and firmed up a levee to protect its investment. During the 2013 flood, this kept areas upon which CU hopes to build dry but did nothing to protect downstream residents and property in Frasier Meadows and elsewhere, which flooded badly.

Despite mining activities and CU’s ditching and draining, the area still supports habitat for native wildlife, including several rare species, and the last, best remnants of wet tall grass prairie in Colorado, which is also protected as a State Natural Area. Further, restoration of grasses and native wildlife have been occurring.

The City has asked CU to allow it to use some of the land for flood mitigation in exchange for annexation.

CU told The Daily Camera last year that it planned to build as many as eight academic/ research buildings, housing for more than a thousand students and faculty, parking lots, sports fields and bleachers, a solar farm, and new paved roads on the 308 acre property, about 1/3 of which lies within the 500-year flood plain.

Because of CU’s development desires, use of the property for flood mitigation has been severely constrained by mandates to the engineering firms rendering proposals that they only use land CU is willing to give to the City, and that they thereby minimize the amount of CU land each proposal would require.

Unless CU is willing to give the City access to needed land, the City will have to exercise eminent domain power to acquire the land or determine another way to resolve conflicts between CU’s need for land and the City’s need to protect its inhabitants.

What’s at Stake

The Environment: South Boulder Creek is the heart of a magnificent, 140 square mile watershed, which begins above Gross Reservoir and runs east and northeast along the edge of the city. The creek, and its historic floodplain, provide outstanding wetland habitat, including the last, best, wet tall grass prairie habitat in Colorado, which is also protected as a State Natural Area. Dozens of breeding birds, including rare American bitterns and bobolinks live there, along with federally protected Ute ladies’ tresses orchid and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. The CU South property is part of this historic floodplain and immediately adjacent to protected Open Space purchased with millions of dollars in local tax dollars. This 308-acre property currently is at the center of a complex debate over whether and how the land, which affords spectacular views of the Flatirons, should be developed. The property is within Boulder County but is not within the City of Boulder, is owned by the University of Colorado and currently cannot be developed because it does not have access to utilities. For CU to develop the site, the property must first be annexed by the city.Further, road access to the site is limited to South Loop Road, which begins at the most congested intersection in Boulder County, and which dead ends at an informal parking lot used by people who go there to hike, bike walk dogs and recreate.

The Risks: No one disputes the fact that flood mitigation on site is essential to protect the lives and safety of Boulder residents and their property, which are immediately downstream. Nor is there dispute over the necessity of installing appropriate flood mitigation as soon as possible. The 2013 flood made the risks even more apparent.

Current Status

In 2015, the City Council selected a flood mitigation concept developed by Ch2MHill. Phase I would construct a 30-foot high, high-hazard dam that would stretch for a mile on the west side of Highway 36, and use about 80 acres of CU’s land at the north end of the property. Importantly, City Council has stated that no funding is available for Phases 2 and 3, which allegedly would protect property north and east of Hwy 36. Phase 2 and 3 call for construction of floodwater detention ponds at Manhattan Middle School and on the golf course, as well improvements on smaller detention ponds and ditches in the West Valley. All of CH2MHill’s proposals were constrained by the City’s requirement that as little of CU’s land as possible be used, which obviated less complicated designs.

Hydrologists, engineers, and local residents have pointed out the very high cost and serious flaws in CH2MHill’s concepts. They urged Council to consider flooding issues during revisions in 2017 to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan. As a result, land use designations on the site were changed and a set of Guiding Principles established to prevent construction of any permanent structures within the 500-year floodplain. The principles also call for completion of critical groundwater and other studies, and investigation of alternatives such as land swaps to meet the university’s needs while putting flood safety and environmental protection as priorities for use of the CU South property. After the 2017 City Council elections, the city agreed to examine a new set of flood mitigation concepts that consider the need to plan for resiliency in an era of climate change, among other things.

In spring of 2018, a citizens’ ad hoc advisory panel permitted by the City Staff and City Manager and with encouragement from Councilmembers Sam Weaver and Cindy Carlisle, identified serious omissions and flaws in the original Alternative D, now called the Master Plan Concept. As a consequence, the consultant made modifications to the Master Plan Concept which are are called Variant I and Variant II. We believe that serious flaws remain even with these modifications.

Furthermore, only one of the studies called for in the BVCP or requested by City Council in July 2017 have been initiated. This is a groundwater study, and its results will not be ready until summer 2019. We believe it is unwise for any decisions on flood mitigation or annexation to be made before all results of the requested studies are available and made public. Nonetheless, City Council has been asked to decide on August 7th, which of the Ch2MHill options to move from the concept state to the development stage. Multiple city agencies are involved including the Planning Board, Open Space Board of Trustees, and the Water Resources Advisory Board. For this reason, we urgently request that a delay be initiated and an alternative be considered.

An Alternative Solution

For a number of years, citizens groups and local experts have advocated an alternative, which we call an Upstream Detention Solution. It would use the existing mined-out gravel pit on CU-South’s property for water detention as well as small, naturally contoured berms within the 500-year floodplain to slow and store floodwaters until they can drain back into South Boulder Creek Creek through one or more outlets that would be located and designed for minimal impact on critical wildlife habitat.

Since the quarry pit is at least 15 feet below the ground level outside of the pit, it constitutes an excellent detention facility which would not need additional excavation, with attendant need to seal the bottom of such detention ponds to prevent the high levels of groundwater in the area from seeping in and filling them. We know that one of OSBT’s recent recommendations calls on the city to investigate the same “Upstream Solution,” that we are advocating

We know that any approvable flood mitigation concept would have to prevent potentially irrevocable damage to designated city-owned Open Space adjacent to the CU property. We do not believe the current options before City Council adequately protect open space. (Note: This does not apply to the Open Space/Other lands on the property, however, we advocate that such land be preserved as open space, its wetlands be restored to their maximum potential, and then protected.) By contrast, we believe our upstream detention option would be less damaging to such open space property than the infrastructure construction and detention required by the Master Plan concepts and its variants.

Our Requests

An Upstream Detention Solution should be fully analyzed. We believe it may prove to be the safest, least expensive and environmentally destructive option. City staff have consistently dismissed such an idea without substantiation, proffering instead on July 23, 2018, a wildly exaggerated –and unacceptable—version of our request.

City Council must step in and require City Staff and the consultants to model and study our Upstream Solution as carefully as they have done the previous Alternative D, Master Plan, and Variants I and II–all of which are constrained and rendered fatally flawed by the requirement that as much of CU’s property as possible remain developable. We believe that the first priority should be the safety of lives and property in the South Boulder Creek Floodplain and preservation of open space, wetlands and endangered habitat, NOT protection of CU’s development aspirations.

All of the studies of groundwater, soils, geology, soils must be completed and made available to the public before either a flood control option is selected or annexation is discussed. This information is essential for making informed decisions. City Council requested that these studies be done in July 2017, but to date, the consultants have only begun the groundwater study, whose results are not expected until next summer.

CU and the city should discuss a land exchange, buy-out, and use of the Planning Reserve to find another, more suitable site for the university’s housing needs. No one should be building permanent structures in a floodplain and certainly not housing.

Designated Open Space should not be used for flood mitigation. These lands must be 100% protected from development, including anything that disrupts groundwater flows.

The land should be assessed by professional ecological restoration experts to determine its maximum restoration potential and restored to that potential.

Supporting Organizations

PLAN Boulder

Sierra Club Indian Peaks Chapter

Boulder Neighborhood Association

Boulder County Audubon

Southeast Boulder Neighborhood Alliance

The Environmental Group

Together 4 Boulder