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Flood potential could drain Basalt’s coffers

The Basalt Town Council is taking steps to slow development along the Roaring Fork River after learning millions of dollars of work is needed to limit the risks of a catastrophic flood.

The council directed the town staff Tuesday night to draft legislation that would prohibit development along the Roaring Fork River if it causes any increase of the river’s depth in the floodway or if it could interfere with work intended to limit flooding potential.

Developers of affected property will have the chance to try to convince the council that their work should be exempt from the prohibition.

Town Manager Tom Baker warned the board that the legislation will be unpopular with a handful of developers and landowners along the Roaring Fork.

“There’s no way everybody’s going to be happy with this, that’s for sure,” he said.

Baker warned that the riverside development restrictions could also create an onerous bureaucratic process.

“It’s going to land in your lap,” said Baker. “You’re going to have your consultant saying one thing. You’re going to have the developer’s consultant saying another.”

Developers will have to pay to have the town’s water engineers review their plan. Essentially, it adds a step in the land use review process – a very powerful step.

Councilman Jonathan Fox-Rubin said developers and town residents might agree to a voluntary moratorium on riverside development once they learn results of a new study looking at the Roaring Fork’s flooding potential.

“When people become educated on this, they’re going to be saying, `Oh, shit,’ ” said Fox-Rubin. “I’m saying `Oh, shit.’ “

His surprise was sparked by a consulting team’s assessment of the flooding hazard along a two-mile stretch of the Roaring Fork River from the upper Basalt Bypass Bridge on Highway 82 to the lower bypass bridge in the Emma area.

Water engineer Rick McLaughlin characterized that stretch as “extremely unstable” and susceptible to encroachment, such as construction of buildings, bridges and roads. He said Basalt has allowed a significant amount of development in areas where the river has traditionally run in floods.

A 100-year flood would cause substantial damage and potentially result in fatalities in places like riverside mobile home parks, McLaughlin grimly reported.

His primary recommendation was “don’t worsen already destructive and dangerous conditions.” He also urged the council to buy time for the town to develop solutions.

The council shied away from an outright moratorium, although the “zero-rise in the floodplain” criteria may well stem any development. The council agreed to hire McLaughlin Engineering and Matrix Group, which teamed on the flood hazard study, to plan engineering steps that can be taken to make the Roaring Fork River more predictable in Basalt and less of a flood risk.

The town isn’t considering drastic steps such as condemnation of existing buildings – primarily due to the cost involved. Instead, engineering steps will be considered that add “structure” to the river and improve ways that it handles flood waters, the study said.

A critical decision will be deciding where flood waters should be directed – south of Highway 82, north in the existing channel, or a combination of the two.

“You have to realize you’re looking at multimillion dollar solutions,” said McLaughlin.

One of the least-expensive solutions may be negotiating with the Colorado Department of Transportation to deconstruct the upper bypass bridge and reconstruct it in a way that eases interference with the river, he said.

McLaughlin said the bridge, which is about 13 years old, and an associated levee altered how flood waters flow through Basalt. CDOT officials have thus far denied any problems with the bridge design.

Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens said CDOT and landowners along the Roaring Fork River have to be invited to participate in a process that looks at the problems and explores solutions. The study must be based on flawless field data, he said.

If those other parties “buy in” to the process, they might be willing to help fund solutions, according to Stevens.

“They’re going to be affected by it whether they buy in or not,” he said.


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