Urban Drainage and Flood Control District: Preventing Floods in Seven Metro Counties

Publication Date: 
May, 2018

By Susan M. Thornton

It was 1965 when a massive flood raged through the Denver metro area, leaving 21 dead, causing $540 million in damages, and destroying bridges, roads, water and sewer systems, and homes and businesses.

Soon after, State Senator Joe Shoemaker, a passionate advocate for the South Platte River, began working with county engineers and the Denver Regional Council of Governments on legislation introduced in 1969 to establish the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District (UDFCD).

Ken MacKenzie, Executive Director of the District, says that during the 1969 Legislative Session, it began to rain, and it continued to rain hard for days. “The city was shut down, the freight yards where Elitch’s and the Auraria campus stand today were completely under water, and emergency services were hampered,” he says.

House Member Ted Bryant, speaking in favor of the legislation, told legislators, “If you want the rain to stop, you have to vote for this bill.”
“They did vote to create the District, and the rain did stop,” MacKenzie laughs.

A Unique Board
Unlike other special districts in Colorado, UDFCD has an appointed Board of Directors. And instead of a relatively small number of Board members, its Board numbers 22.

MacKenzie says the legislature had a “stroke of genius” when it established the Board in 1969, because the design of the Board “took the politics” out of its decision-making.

Today, the Board is made up of the Deputy Mayor and three Council Members from Denver; the Mayor of Broomfield; one Commissioner from each of the five other counties in the District; and the Mayor or Mayor Pro Tem from each city with a population greater than 100,000. In addition, the Governor appoints the Mayor or Mayor Pro Tem from one smaller community in each county.

By statute, the Board appoints two professional engineers to two-year terms on the Board. The engineers are full voting members, MacKenzie says, who serve as “translators” between the Board and staff on technical issues.

Although unusual, the setup of the Board has “served very well for a long time,” he adds.

Sixty Percent of the State’s Population Included
Today, almost 60 percent of Colorado’s population is included in the District, which covers 1,600 square miles that are home to 40 local governments, including five counties, two city-counties, and 33 cities and towns.

Under rules established by the Board, local governments must fund half of all capital improvements, and taxes from each county must go back into projects in that county, ensuring that each county gets its fair share of UDFCD funding and assistance.

A Wide Range of Flood-Control Services
With a budget of $30 million and just 32 employees, the District makes extensive use of contractors to provide a wide range of flood-prevention services.

The District partners with local governments on master planning to guide new land development projects consistent with regional drainage, water quality, and flood control needs. Floodplain mapping helps local governments know where developments should not be built. Policy and engineering standards and permit assistance are provided, research is conducted into stormwater best management practices, and streams are cleared of debris to prevent flooding.

The District also has done much to preserve open spaces that can serve as floodplains. “The nice biking and hiking trails along rivers and streams that everyone enjoys are not there by accident,” MacKenzie says.

Recently, the District has begun offering a Maintenance Eligibility Program. If a local government includes the District as a referral agency in its development planning, the District will help design and build what MacKenzie calls “the right infrastructure.”

Moreover, land developers typically don’t have expertise in implementing flood control and drainage, he says. So the District’s Development Services Enterprise allows developers to partner with the District, which will then hire expert engineering and construction companies to design and build regional drainageinfrastructure necessitated by the development.

“We can achieve an economy of expertise that would otherwise not be accessible to the developer, saving the developer time and money,” he says. “And we get the highest quality infrastructure with lower maintenance requirements down the line, which saves the taxpayer money as well.”

Funding Challenges
When UDFCD was established in 1969, the legislature approved a property tax of one-tenth of a mill for it. Later, in the 1970s and ‘80s, the legislature approved an additional four-tenths of a mill for construction projects; four-tenths of a mill for maintenance and preservation of stream corridors; and one-tenth of a mill exclusively for work on the South Platte River—bringing the District’s mill levy to one.

But the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), which requires local governments to return tax money to voters when they exceed their TABOR cap, is a serious problem for the District.

“If it weren’t for TABOR, we would have $52 million per year for flood control and drainage projects,” MacKenzie says. But since TABOR passed in 1992, the District’s revenues have ratcheted down to just $30 million, and its mill levy has dropped by 44 percent, from one mill to 0.557 mills.

In 2018, the District received requests from local governments for more than $40 million for projects, but only has $20 million available. “Instead of our goal of a 50 percent match, we are now able to do only a 25 to 30 percent match” with local governments, he says.

Being “Unknown” Adds Complexity
The District’s Board has considered taking a TABOR vote to the people—not for a tax increase, MacKenzie emphasizes—to restore the mill levy to the one mill approved by the legislature.

But asking for voter approval could be complicated because people don’t know about UDFCD, he says.

“We have always taken pride in letting local communities take credit for projects we’ve helped with,” he states. “The District oftentimes managed the planning, engineering, and construction, but the public was unaware.”

As a result, the District is beginning a public information campaign to educate the public about its work, while also increasing flood awareness.

Another complication in seeking a TABOR vote is that the District covers all of Denver and Broomfield, but only parts of the other five counties (Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Jefferson, and Douglas).

Homeless Population Impacts District’s Work
In addition to funding, one of the challenges faced by the District is a rising tide of homeless people.

A large number of homeless are camping along the metro area’s rivers and streams, not just along the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, MacKenzie says.

This poses sanitation and water quality issues. In addition, some of the homeless are becoming “more and more aggressive,” he says, brazenly approaching recreational users on bike paths and trails, and demanding money, food, or liquor and drugs.

They are also “protecting their part of the river,” he says, laying booby traps such as trip wires and sharpened “punji” stakes, causing unsafe working conditions for the District’s maintenance crews.

In addition, when homeless people abandon their camps, “They leave clothing, bedding, garbage, feces, hypodermic needles, and general filth.”

It’s a serious and complex social issue, MacKenzie says, requiring a regional fix similar to the regional approach exemplified by UDFCD.

Grateful for Employees, SDA
When asked what he’s proudest of, MacKenzie says, “It’s the people. I have a great crew of really smart, dedicated, and mission-driven employees.”

MacKenzie is also grateful for the work of SDA. “SDA has supported us over the years and been very helpful,” he states, adding that he looks forward to SDA’s Annual Conferences. “I get to learn about the laws governing special districts at the Conference, and I meet a lot of great people there,” he says.