Floodplain Management: The Art of Conversation

By Lisa Wade, Riverside Water Resources Engineer

I spent Thursday at the Colorado Flood Forum hosted by Colorado State University and the Colorado Association of Stormwater and Floodplain Managers. It was an interesting and informative day that gave me another opportunity to appreciate the hardworking and caring people who work in the water world in CO.

A big portion of the day was devoted to communication issues. How can floodplain managers and emergency managers best communicate with the public about flood risk? Several speakers mentioned that the public commonly misunderstands phrases such as “100-year event” and “100-year floodplain,” yet those phrases remain in widespread use.

When a flood occurs, communication is all the more critical. Speakers from the National Weather Service and the Colorado Water Conservation Board described how people become immune to alert language over time, and how hard it is to convey a sense of risk unless a flood event has occurred in recent memory. Before the September 2013 floods, it had been 13 years since CO received a disaster declaration for flooding.

A speaker from Slate Communications polled the audience and found that ~ 90% of the attendees were engineers (including myself!). One can infer that we may not be the best people to craft messages that translate technical information into action.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, Frank Luntz has made a compelling case that language is a powerful tool to influence public opinion and action. I was driving home a few weeks ago and heard an interesting story about a report released by the Colorado Forest Service that finds that more planning and mitigation is needed by residents who live in the wildland-urban interface.

The wildland-urban interface?! I was struck by that phrase. It’s a poetic means of describing proximity to a natural hazard. Doesn’t it effectively convey that a person or thing located at that interface is at risk? Isn’t that phrase more compelling and picturesque than “100-year floodplain” or “special flood hazard area”? A similar phrase in floodplain management could be the key to conveying risk, encouraging folks to buy flood insurance, or to think twice before living in the floodplain.

I don’t know what that magic phrase is. The best I can come up with is urban-river corridor. (There’s a reason I’m an engineer.) But, the more we work with communications and public information officials, the better our message will be understood by the public, and that seems just as important as the technical work that we love doing: modeling floods and mapping inundated areas.

How does your organization communicate risk? Do you have a good phrase that we should be using? If so, leave me a comment!

Riverside attends the NHWC workshop

Lisa Wade and Kristina Murphy from Riverside will be participating in the National Hydrologic Warning Counsel’s Colorado Advanced Flood Warning System Workshop on February 26, 2014 in Broomfield, Colorado. The workshop will focus on how flood warning systems helped to save lives and how new advances can improve existing infrastructure. Wednesday promises to be a great learning and networking opportunity. Looking forward to seeing everyone there!

2014 Annual DARCA Convention

DARCA is an organization that supports irrigation enterprises in Colorado. They have been very active recently in supporting members who were impacted by the Front Range floods in September 2013. Visit their website for more information.

Lisa Wade attended the DARCA presentation at the Colorado Water Congress meeting at the end of January. Right now, irrigation companies with the ability to self-fund are working their hardest to get their headgates operational. Many headgates and other ditch infrastructure was destroyed during the flood. To make matters more complicated, the rivers moved their channels. Sean Cronin of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District shared footage of the flood aftermath. It was amazing to see how much the channels have changed in some locations. Bridges are now spanning dry beds and entire lots were washed away (not just the house, but the very ground it stood on). Scott Edgar, the General Manager of FRICO, shared pictures and stories of mudslides destroying sections of their ditch, being forced to breach a section of ditch that was overwhelmed with flood water, and how they are moving forward with recovery efforts.

The DARCA annual convention’s topic is “From Drought to Deluge – Dealing with Uncertainty”. There will be more information on how ditch and reservoir companies are getting ready for the upcoming irrigation season. Hope to see you there!

Colorado Front Range Flooding in September 2013

Riverside has compiled photos submitted by our very own. Thankfully, we pulled through the floods relatively unscathed. As you will see, our friends and neighbors suffered serious impacts.

Riverside will be participating in the upcoming National Hydrologic Warning Counsel’s Colorado Advanced Flood Warning System Workshop on February 26, 2014 in Broomfield, Colorado. The workshop will focus on how flood warning systems helped to save lives and how new advances can improve existing infrastructure. On February 27, 2014, Riverside will be attending the Colorado Flood Forum to learn more about this historic event and how communities are responding. These back-to-back forums give the community an opportunity to learn from the devastating September 2013 floods.

Flooding near Berthoud, CO

Folks at Riverside contributed their photos of the September 2013 flooding. This gallery shows the damage near Berthoud, Colorado.

Riverside will be participating in the upcoming National Hydrologic Warning Counsel’s Colorado Advanced Flood Warning System Workshop on February 26, 2014 in Broomfield, Colorado. The workshop will focus on how flood warning systems helped to save lives and how new advances can improve existing infrastructure. On February 27, 2014, Riverside will be attending the Colorado Flood Forum to learn more about this historic event and how communities are responding. These back-to-back forums give the community an opportunity to learn from the devastating September 2013 floods.