CDOT takes blame for Basalt levee
August 3, 2010
BASALT – The Colorado Department of Transportation has taken responsibility for an inadequate levee that has boosted the flood insurance premiums and prevented development of some lands in a Basalt neighborhood.
The construction of the Highway 82 Basalt Bypass in 1987 included a levee that was supposed to provide flood protection for what became known as the Southside area, south of the realigned road. The levee is just upstream from the Upper Bypass Bridge, on the southern bank just before the Roaring Fork River makes a sharp twist toward town.
The levee was built, but the proper procedure wasn’t followed for certification by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to Stuart Gardner, hydraulics engineer for the state transportation department’s Region 3 office in Grand Junction.
“There’s plenty of blame to go to around,” Gardner told the Basalt Town Council in a meeting last month. Ultimately, the blame rests with CDOT, he added.
When FEMA worked on new flood-plain maps for the midvalley area after high water in 1995, it determined the levee was out of compliance with its standards. As a result, property owners in the Southside area were forced to pay higher premiums for flood insurance.
Bob Myers, an owner of Myers and Co. Architectural Metals, said he was in the “flood fringe” in 1986 when he constructed fabricated buildings for his construction firm. He had to raise the footprint of the land to mitigate potential flooding issues, and pay “a couple of grand per year” for flood insurance.
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New FEMA mapping after 1995 placed his firm’s property in the flood plain. He faced a premium of $60,000 for insurance. He negotiated it down to $6,000; now it has crept up to about $10,000 annually, he said.
He would welcome work that would bring the levee into compliance with FEMA because it would reduce, or even eliminate, his need for flood insurance.
Other land owners haven’t been able to develop their land because of issues tied to potential flooding. The town of Basalt adopted a “zero rise” rule that makes any future development offset any increase it creates in downstream flooding. In some cases, that’s prohibitive.
CDOT downplayed its construction as a problem with flooding regulations for decades, but in 2005 it hired an engineering consultant to study the levee. That assessment brought the errors to light.
“CDOT was really not in the levee-building business,” Gardner said Monday. If the proper procedure was followed when the levee was constructed, FEMA would have caught the issues and required corrections, he said.
Now, an engineering firm is studying what level of work is required to bring the earth structure into compliance. The big question, Gardner said, is will it require revisions or “do we need to scoop the entire thing out and start over?”
He suspects it will require “significant effort.” The levee was built on ground that wasn’t cleared, and rotting organic matter has raised questions about the viability of the base. Trees and other vegetation were allowed to grow on the berm because of lack of maintenance.
The transportation department funded the engineering review – with help from Basalt, Pitkin and Eagle counties – and will find the funds for a final design of whatever corrective work is needed, Gardner said. But the cash-strapped state government doesn’t have funds in its budget for the work itself.
“We’re basically broke right now,” CDOT engineer Roland Wagner told the Basalt Town Council at the recent meeting.
Officials are hopeful that federal grants will be available for the work. Myers said the transportation’s admission of responsibility provides little relief for him and other property owners if the levee work isn’t funded.