Initial Publication Date: April 10, 2014

Flood Risk in Boulder, Colorado

Adelle Monteblanco, Sociology, University of Colorado at Boulder


As evident by the September 2013 floods and history of wildfires, the mountain community of Boulder, CO is a uniquely vulnerable location. Boulder is positioned in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and is famous for its access to recreation and its number of sunny days. The state has important significance as well. For example, Colorado sits at a high elevation with a semi-arid climate. Although the state includes the headwaters of the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, the state's water supply experiences considerable seasonal and yearly variation—as evident by previous flood and drought events (which may become more frequent and severe due to climate change). These intersecting issues result in a city and state with considerable risk.

In order to create a more resilient Boulder, this case study asks students to identify the natural hazard risks associated with the city as well as the vulnerable populations that may benefit from greater assistance. While the focus will be on flooding and wildfire, students should not overlook ties to weather extremes such as snow, wind and lightening. Through readings and guest speakers students will be required to 1) explore city and county mitigation plans, 2) identify vulnerable populations in Boulder, and 3) brainstorm additional steps for the county to enhance disaster resilience.

Developing the capacity and willingness to mitigate disasters will require turning our attention to human vulnerabilities. While the city's population (100,000+) is on average wealthier and more formally educated than many other locations, the presence of a large population of university students adds a particular challenge. The University of Colorado Boulder, the state's flagship university, includes an undergraduate population of ~30,000 students, with a unique set of strengths and vulnerabilities. For example, students are often transient, financially reliant on guardians, do very little to prepare for disasters and simply lack geographic knowledge of their locale. Therefore, students will be required to reflect on how their population shapes the resilience of Boulder.

Individuals with expertise/responsibilities in the following areas have helped create the case study:
  • Director, Boulder Office of Emergency Management
  • Regional Chief Executive Officer, Mile High Chapter, Red Cross
  • Director, Boulder Counter Firefighters Association
  • Sheriff, Boulder County
  • Dean of Students, University of Colorado Boulder
  • Manager, Community Health, University of Colorado Boulder

Key teaching points:
  • The importance of equity in a holistic understanding of sustainability.
  • The potential social, economic and geophysical impacts of future flooding and wildfire.
  • The options for preparing, adapting and mitigating the Boulder community to local floods and wildfire.
  • The intersecting vulnerabilities and strengths of the student population.
  • The uniqueness of Colorado water: it's variability, appropriations and diverse stakeholders.

How this example is used in the classroom:
This case is used to explore the intersecting themes of risk, flooding and vulnerability. It takes up multiple class periods to leave time for lecture, discussion, guest speakers and collaborative problem-solving.


Averyt, Kristen et al. Colorado Climate Preparedness Project: Final Report, particularly the "Water Sector in Colorado" chapter. Link:

Boulder County Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan. 2013. DRAFT (2016 CURRENT)

Cutter, S.L., Boruff, B.J. and Shirley, W.L. 2003. Social Vulnerability to Environmental Hazards. Social Science Quarterly 84(2):242-261.

FEMA. 2013. "Colorado Flooding One Month Later: Positive Signs of Recovery." 2013. Link:

Konrad, C. P. 2013. Effects of urban development on floods. U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 07603. URL:

Lovekamp, William E., and Sara K. McMahon. 2011. "I Have a Snickers Bar in the Trunk of My Car: Student Narratives of Disaster Risk, Fear, Preparedness, and Reflections on Union University." International Journal of Mass Emergencies & Disasters 29(2):132-148.

Lovekamp, William E., and Michelle L. Tate. 2008. "College student disaster risk, fear and preparedness." International Journal Mass Emergencies and Disasters 26:70-90.

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