Boulder Creek and South Boulder Creek
The following was excerpted from the Boulder
Creek Flood Warning Plan.
THE BOULDER CREEK DRAINAGE BASIN
This section provides an overview of the watersheds and flood hazards
associated with Boulder Creek and South Boulder Creek including descriptions of
the drainage basins, historic floods, flood hydrology and flooding extents. Much
of the information in this section of the warning plan was excerpted from the
following flood studies:
- Early Flood Warning Planning, Boulder Creek by Leonard Rice Consulting
Water Engineers, July 1977.
- Boulder Creek Flood Hazard Area Delineation by Muller Engineering Company,
- South Boulder Creek Flood Hazard Area Delineation by Greenhorne &
O'Mara, Inc., July 1986.
- South Boulder Creek Major Drainageway Planning, Alternative Formulation
and Evaluation, Phase A Report by Taggart Engineering Associates, Inc.,
The following documents contain additional hydrologic data, flood history
discussions, floodplain delineations and other pertinent information:
- Boulder County and CWCB, Floodplain Information Report, Upper Boulder
Creek and Fourmile Creek, prepared by Gingery Associates, Inc., December
- FEMA, Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) and Flood Insurance Study for the
City of Boulder, Revised May 3 1990.
- FEMA, Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) and Flood Insurance Study for the
Boulder County, Revised July 3 1990.
- UDFCD, Flood Hazard Area Delineation, Lower Boulder Creek, prepared
by Muller Engineering Company, March 1983.
- UDFCD, Flood Hazard Area Delineation, Boulder and Adjacent County
Drainageways, prepared by Greenhorne & O'Mara, Inc., May 1987.
Drainage Basin Descriptions
Originating at the Continental Divide, the Boulder Creek basin encompasses
132 square miles above the City of Boulder. The basin is oriented in a generally
west to east direction and includes the major tributaries of North Boulder Creek
(45 square miles), Middle Boulder Creek (44 square miles) and Fourmile Creek (24
square miles). Figure II-1 shows the Boulder Creek drainage basin boundary.
Figure II-1 Boulder Creek Watershed
Within the basin there is scattered development along the streams. Nederland,
the largest mountain town west of Boulder, is located on Middle Boulder Creek
immediately above Barker Reservoir. Further upstream along Middle Boulder Creek
is the town of Eldora and the Lake Eldora Ski Area. The communities of Sunnyside
and Silver Spruce are located on Boulder Creek downstream of Barker Reservoir
and the communities of Sunset, Wallstreet and Crisman are located along Fourmile
Creek. The settlement called Orodell is located at the confluence of Fourmile
Creek with Boulder Creek. Transportation routes within the basin include State
Highway 119, which follows Middle Boulder and Boulder Creeks between Nederland
and Boulder, State Highway 72 which runs north/south through Nederland, and
County Road 118 which extends along Fourmile Creek.
Numerous small lakes fed by melting snows occur in the higher portions of the
basin. Barker Reservoir, owned by the City of Boulder, stores water for electric
power generation at a plant further downstream and for municipal water for the
City of Boulder. A number of glaciers exist at the Continental Divide.
The Boulder Creek basin ranges in elevation from 13,409 feet above mean sea
level at Navajo Peak to approximately 5,385 feet at Boulder. The basin is
predominantly mountains and foothills, characterized by steep streams with rock
and gravel beds. Fifteen percent of the basin lies above 11,000 feet and 46%
above 9,000 feet. Main channel slopes average 21/2% - 5% for Boulder Creek, 4% -
8% for North Boulder Creek, 21/2% - 81/2% for Middle Boulder Creek and 4% - 10%
for Fourmile Creek.
Because of the steep slopes and generally elongated basins, Boulder Creek and
its principal tributaries are susceptible to flash floods caused by high
intensity, short duration thunderstorms which generally occur from May through
September. Rainfall rates from such storms can exceed the infiltration capacity
of the surface soil, producing large runoff in short periods of time. When high
runoff converges on a stream, it generally exceeds the carrying capacity of the
normal channel, resulting in flooding of the adjacent floodplain.
SOUTH BOULDER CREEK
South Boulder Creek, which drains an area of 132 square miles, is a
right-bank tributary of Boulder Creek. From its headwaters at the Continental
Divide, South Boulder Creek flows in an easterly direction through relatively
steep, narrow mountain canyons for nearly 22 miles whereupon it emerges onto the
high plains at Eldorado Springs, Colorado. From Eldorado Springs, the creek
flows northeasterly through a moderately wide valley over a distance of about
9.7 miles to its confluence with Boulder Creek.
Gross Reservoir is a water storage facility located on South Boulder Creek
approximately 3.5 miles upstream of Eldorado Springs. The reservoir was
constructed in 1955 and has a storage capacity of 43,000 acre-feet. The
reservoir is operated by the Denver Water Department and provides conservation
storage for municipal use. A U.S. Geological Survey stream gaging station is
situated approximately 6.7 miles downstream of the reservoir. The drainage area
at the gaging station is about 109 square miles. ). Figure II-2 shows the South
Boulder Creek drainage basin boundary.
Figure II-2 South Boulder Creek Watershed
Since 1864, the City of Boulder has experienced five major flood events on
Boulder Creek, ranging in estimated discharge from 2,500 cubic feet per second (cfs)
to 13,000 cfs, resulting in light to severe property damage. All floods for
which dates are known occurred in either May or June. The flood of June 1894 was
the flood of record at Boulder and had an estimated peak discharge of 13,000 cfs.
The estimated frequencies of these five major events range between 10- and
100-years as determined from discharge probability relationships developed by
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE). The following is a brief description of
what is known of each of these five major flood events:
1876, May 21-23
Little is known about the 1876 flood. The Greeley Tribune reported: "The
Boulder, swollen into a great river, in many places fully a mile and a half
wide, inundated the land and farms and meadows and swept away fences and
1894, May 29 - June 2
Heavy rains fell over the northern Colorado mountains in this period.
Rainfall over the Boulder Creek basin was particularly heavy. Mountain rainfall
of 4.5 to 6 inches combined with snowmelt runoff from heavy snowfall. The
resulting flood came roaring down the valley during the night of May 30.
In the mountains above Boulder, numerous bridges, several miles of roads and
railroads, mountain communities, and mining properties were damaged. Estimates
were made of the peak discharge of this flood 18 years after its occurrence.
These ranged from 9,000 to 13,000 cfs.
In Boulder, floodwaters covered the entire area between Water Street (now
called Canyon Boulevard) and University Hill to depths as great as eight feet.
Every bridge in Boulder and a number of residences were swept away. Other types
of damage included: commercial establishments, public utilities, railroad
property, roads and streets, and irrigation structures. Many people were trapped
in their homes and had to be rescued. Only one life was lost; this was due, in
part, to the flood's slow onset.
In the valley downstream from Boulder, the floodplain was reported to have
inundated an average width of approximately one-mile for several days.
Agricultural damages included: loss of livestock, crops, pastures, fences,
roads, and deposition of sand and silt on floodplain lands. In addition,
considerable crop losses were suffered on lands outside the floodplain which
were dependent on irrigation diversions from Boulder Creek.
1914, June 1-2
Heavy rains in the mountains that hastened the melting of a deep snowpack,
estimated at 50 percent above normal, produced what newspaper accounts called
"the worst flood on Boulder Creek following the 1894 flood." Boulder's
water supply system and the Boulder County farm were severely damaged. Numerous
roads and bridges in the mountains were also damaged or destroyed.
1921, June 2-7
Little is known of this flood except that it produced the highest peak
discharge ever recorded at the U.S. Geological Survey Orodell gage, located
about three miles upstream from Boulder and one mile upstream from Fourmile
Creek. The Orodell gage has been continuously operated since 1916. A peak
discharge of 2,500 cfs was recorded on June 6. Rainfall totaled 3.36 inches at
Boulder through the six-day period.
1969 May 4-8
The 1969 flood resulted from a long duration storm. Runoff resulted from a
combination of rainfall and snowmelt which was reported heaviest in the
mountains. In the Boulder and South Boulder Creek basins, the rainfall continued
at a moderate rate for nearly four days. Total precipitation for the storm
amounted to 7.60 inches at Boulder and 9.34 inches at the Boulder Hydroelectric
Plant located about three miles up the canyon from Boulder. Peak flooding at
Boulder occurred on May 7. Estimates of discharge at the Orodell gage indicate a
peak of 1,220 cfs. The discharge near Broadway in Boulder was estimated to be
between 2,500 and 3,000 cfs. Instances of erosion damage to bridges and streets,
trees, and agricultural lands were recorded. Large areas were flooded downstream
SOUTH BOULDER CREEK
The USGS has maintained a stream gaging station on South Boulder Creek near
Eldorado Springs since 1888, however, there have been lapses in its operation.
The gage was not in operation from October 1892 to May 1895, and from September
1901 to August 1904. It should be noted that a major flood event occurred on May
29, 1894 during the period in which records were not kept.
The following briefly describes three of the largest recorded flooding events
on South Boulder Creek. Due to the relatively undeveloped nature of the South
Boulder Creek basin, information and observations related to major flood events
is somewhat lacking in comparison to the adjacent, more heavily developed
Boulder Creek floodplain.
1894, May 29 - June 2
Heavy rains fell over the mountains extending from the Colorado-Wyoming
border southward into the Republican and Arkansas River basins. Rainfall over
the Boulder and South Boulder Creek basins was particularly heavy. Rainfall
records for a 96-hour period ending at 3 AM on June 2 indicate that the mountain
drainage area received from 4.5 to 6.0 inches of precipitation. Rainfall amounts
over the high plains gradually decreased from west to east and varied from 5
inches at Boulder to approximately 2.5 inches at the mouth of Boulder Creek. The
mountain rainfall combined with the snowmelt runoff produced the greatest flood
known at Boulder, inundating the valley during the night of 30 May, 1894.
Buildings, bridges, roads, and railroads were washed away. Computations made 18
years later produced estimates of the peak discharge on Boulder Creek in Boulder
that ranged from 9,000 cubic feet per second to 13,600 cubic feet per second.
The Eldorado Springs stream gaging station was not functioning during this flood
In Boulder, floodwaters covered the entire area between Water Street (Canyon
Boulevard) and University Hill to depths as great as eight feet. Every bridge in
Boulder and a number of residences were swept away. Other types of damage
included commercial establishments, public utilities, railroad property, roads
and streets, and irrigation structures. Many people were trapped in their homes
and had to be rescued. Only one life was lost; this was due, in part, to the
flood's slow onset.
In the valley, downstream from Boulder, the floodplain was reported to have
been inundated to an average width of approximately one-mile for several days.
Agricultural damages included loss of livestock, crops, pastures, fences, roads
and deposition of sand and silt on floodplain lands. In addition, considerable
crop losses were suffered on lands outside the floodplain which were dependent
on irrigation diversions from Boulder Creek.
1938, August 31-September 4
This storm produced general rains over all of eastern Colorado. The largest
amounts of precipitation occurred in the mountains where more than 6 inches was
reported west of Eldorado Springs. Eldorado Springs recorded 4.42 inches of
rainfall. Approximately 80 percent of the total precipitation falling in the
South Boulder Creek basin fell in the late afternoon and evening of September 2.
The resulting flood, with a peak discharge of 7,390 cfs passed through Eldorado
Springs at 10:00 PM on September 2. The resort community of Eldorado Springs
suffered heavy damage and numerous buildings were destroyed when floodwaters
eroded their foundations. The valley from Eldorado Springs to Boulder Creek and
down Boulder Creek to St. Vrain Creek was in shambles. This flood is the highest
recorded flood on South Boulder Creek.
1969, May 4-8
The 1969 flood resulted from a long duration general storm. Runoff resulted
from a combination of rainfall and snowmelt, with the heaviest precipitation
reported in the mountains. Rainfall continued at a moderate rate for nearly four
days. Total precipitation for the storm amounted to 7.60 inches at Boulder and
9.34 inches at the Boulder Hydroelectric Plant on Boulder Creek located about 3
miles up the canyon from Boulder. Precipitation amounts totaled 8.11 inches at
Eldorado Springs and 10.05 inches at Gross Reservoir on South Boulder Creek.
Peak flooding occurred on May 7 at Boulder and Eldorado Springs. A peak
discharge of 1,690 cfs occurred on South Boulder Creek at Eldorado Springs.
Large portions of the floodplain were inundated below the confluence of South
Boulder and Boulder Creeks.
Few people who presently live in the South Boulder Creek floodplain have
experienced the major historic floods that have spilled over the creek's low
banks flooding an area up to a mile-wide. The last major flood in the South
Boulder Creek watershed occurred in 1969. Flooding occurred several times in the
1950's. The flood of record occurred in 1938. The following table lists historic
flood events with peak discharges exceeding 1000 cfs.
Historic Floods on South Boulder Creek at Eldorado Springs (Drainage Area 109
DATE CFS DATE CFS 1895 June 3 1,130 1947 June 21 1,290 1900 May 9 1,100 1949
June 6 1,430 1909 June 20 1,340 1951 June 18 2,370 1914 May 24 1,240 1952 June 4
1,080 1921 June 6 1,440 1969 May 7 1,690 1938 September 2 7,390
Hydrology and Flooding Extents BOULDER CREEK The U. S. Army Corps of
Engineers (USACOE) conducted a hydrologic study of the Boulder Creek basin in
connection with a flood management study for the City of Boulder. The Corps'
analysis included generation of the 10-, 25-, 50-, 100- and 500-year frequency
floods over the entire basin. The 100-year design storm rainfall totaled 2.8
inches over a 6-hour period with about 1.2 inches falling in the first half of
the fourth hour. While flash flood rainfall can have greater intensities than
the maximum of 2.6 inches per hour used in the Corps' model, it was felt that
the model could be used as the basis for estimating lead times. The relation
between rainfall and runoff for the five frequency events was obtained from the
Corps for 11 hydrologic design points along the stream channels.
Analysis of the data indicates which portions of the Boulder Creek basin are
responsible for generating floods at specific locations, and the amount of
warning time available after flood producing rainfall occurs. Figure II-3 shows
the elapsed time from the midpoint of flood producing rainfall to the peak of
the 100-year flood for the 11 design points within the basin. The elapsed time
between rainfall and flood peak is longer for less intense storms and shorter
for more intense storms. From Figure II-3 it can be seen that Barker Reservoir,
located on Middle Boulder Creek, delays the flood peak.
During a regional rainfall event, two flood peaks can be expected for Middle
Boulder Creek above its confluence with North Boulder Creek. The first peak is
smaller and comes from the tributary area below Barker Reservoir. Below the
confluence of North Boulder and Middle Boulder Creeks, the timing and magnitude
of the flood peak is due to the contribution of North Boulder Creek. Boulder
Creek between North Boulder Creek and Orodell has several tributary basins that
contribute significant amounts of floodwater before the peak from the upper
basin arrives. This causes Boulder Creek above Orodell to peak before it does
below the confluence of North and Middle Boulder Creeks. A similar situation
exists at the confluence of Boulder Creek and Fourmile Creek. Fourmile Creek is
an elongated basin that contributes a significant amount of floodwater ahead of
the peak on Boulder Creek above Orodell. In other words, Fourmile Creek peaks
earlier than Boulder Creek above Fourmile Creek.
Figure II-4 shows the most probable mountain canyon areas for loss of life
and property damage along Fourmile Creek and Boulder Creek.
SOUTH BOULDER CREEK The basin characteristics for South Boulder Creek are
similar to Boulder Creek and design flood hydrology was also developed by USACOE
(see above discussion for Boulder Creek). During a major flood on South Boulder
Creek, floodwaters will split between two major flow paths and a number of
irrigation and small drainage ditches. The South Boulder Creek main channel,
located on the east or right side of the valley looking downstream, will carry
moderate flows. At a number of locations floodwaters will spill to the west side
of the valley into a second main flow path referred to as the "West Valley
Overflow" or WVO. Some of the WVO floodwaters eventually make it back to
the South Boulder Creek channel. However, in larger floods, spillage to Bear
Canyon Creek and Boulder Creek would occur. In 1969 floodwaters followed many of
the WVO routes.
Since 1954, Gross Reservoir has attenuated floods originating upstream of the
dam. A significant volume of mountain runoff was trapped in Gross during the
1969 flood, which appears to have reduced downstream flooding. It should be
noted that Gross Reservoir's primary function is water supply, not flood
control. The reservoir is owned, operated and maintained by the Denver Water
Department. Consequently, there is no guarantee that this inadvertent floodwater
storage below the spillway will be available to attenuate future floods. The
railroad line to the Moffat Tunnel also provides some inadvertent flood storage.
Access in and out of Boulder would effectively be cut off during a large
flood on South Boulder Creek. This would exacerbate problems and impact the use
and movement of emergency vehicles and equipment. The following roads are at
risk of being overtopped and possibly washed out:
* State Highway 170 (Eldorado Springs Dr.) * State Highway 93 (South
Broadway) * Marshall Road * U.S. Highway 36 * Foothills Parkway * South Boulder
Road * Baseline Road * Gapter Road * Dimmit Avenue * McSorley Lane * Old Tale
Road * Arapahoe Road * 55th Street * many local streets between Foothills
Parkway and South Boulder Creek
In 1993 it was estimated that 1050 homes, 107 apartment buildings, 132
businesses, and 87 small structures are located within the floodplain of South
Boulder Creek. Additional structures have been built since then, increasing the
estimate to roughly 1400 structures. Hundreds more homes located above estimated
flood levels would be isolated by surrounding floodwaters in the area between
Foothills Parkway and South Boulder Creek. Figure II-3