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Boulder Canyon Hydroelectric Generation Flood Wave

The Boulder Creek Hydroelectric Flood Wave
by John Moody, Hydrologist, US Geological Survey

Photo copyright by the Denver Public Library from their Western History Collection . See the BASIN Gallery for more information.

Built in 1906 to generate alternating current by the Public Service Company of Colorado, the Orodell power plant was powered by water piped down the south side of Boulder Canyon from Kossler Reservoir. An aqueduct from Barker Reservoir, built to store water for this purpose, replenishes the water in Kossler Reservoir. In March, 2001 the City of Boulder purchased the entire Barker/Kossler system from the Public Service Company. The city continues to use the Kossler Reservoir and pipelines to deliver raw water to the Bettaso Water Treatment Plant, however this periodic hydroelectric generation release has been discontinued due to need for water storage capacity in Barker Reservoir. Additional information on the city's decision regarding Boulder Canyon hyodroelectric generation releases is available from the Boulder's Public Works department Barker Reservoir www site .

As daylight gets shorter and darkness gets longer in the fall, the Public Service Company of Colorado starts producing extra electricity at the Orodell power station in Boulder Canyon to meet the extra power demands of winter. The power plant is operated for peak power needs from about November through the following March and can produce a maximum of 18 Megawatts of electrical power. The generators are put on line at about 5 p.m. each day, operated for about 2.5 hours, and discharge water at a rate of about 4.2 m3/s (148 ft3/s) into Boulder Creek. This creates a water wave traveling on a baseflow in Boulder Creek of about 0.5 m3/s (17.6 ft3/s, average of December, 1994, January 1996, and February 1996; U. S. Geological Survey--Colorado, 1994). The amount and timing of the release is quite regular so that the amplitude and speed of this flood wave could be studied using one instrument on different days at different sites downstream rather than having a large number of instruments deployed simultaneously at different sites.

Boulder Creek Channel

The flood wave was studied during the winter of 1995-96 from where it originates in the mountains in Boulder Canyon to where it flows under the 109th Street bridge out onto the plains. The channel drops 131 m from the power plant (elevation 1789 m) to the mouth of Boulder Canyon (1658 m) with an average channel slope of 0.028 or nearly 3%. Over the next 10 km through the city of Boulder, the channel slope is about 0.008 and decreases to 0.004 beyond 95th Street on the plains. In the canyon the width of the creek has probably been narrowed in most places by the construction of Highway 119. At the Orodell gage the channel width is 10 m, through the City of Boulder it varies from 6-10 m wide, and is around 15 m wide out on the plains. In the canyon, the bed roughness is dominated by large rocks and boulders often protruding through the water; in the city, artificial pools and diversion structures disrupt the flow but the bed is sand, gravel, and cobbles; and on the plains the bed is mostly sand.

Profile of Boulder Creek Channel


The hydrograph of the flood wave approximates a square wave near the power plant in the canyon and is transformed into a triangular wave farther downstream near 75th Street on the plains. At the Orodell gage located 0.48 km downstream from the power plant the amplitude of the wave is 0.35 m and it arrives at the gage in about 10 minutes. After the wave leaves the canyon (4.8 km downstream from the power plant), the amplitude seems to remains at about 0.45 m as it passes through Boulder. Between 63rd Street and the 95th Street bridge (9.5 km), the amplitude decreases from 0.37 m to 0.17 m as the wave passes through a less engineered reach and has metamorphosed to a nearly triangular wave.
Waveforms of the Flood Wave

Speed of the flood wave

The speed of the flood wave was measured by determining the travel distance along the channel from maps and by recording the arrival time of the wave at specific sites using two different methods. The first method was to install a continuous water-level recorder at a fixed site and record the water level as the flood wave passed during one night and then move the recorder to a new site and record a different flood wave on another night. The second method was to follow the same wave during the evening and record the arrival time of the flood wave at specific sites.

The phase speed or speed of the wave form is the slope of a graph showing travel distance as a function of travel time. Phase speed of the wave is faster than the speed of the water. The phase speed ranged from 0.8 to 1.8 m/s with an average of 1.2 0.2 m/s. Estimates of the cross-sectionally averaged water speed (assuming discharge of 4.2 m3/s) at 11 cross sections across both pools and riffles between Broadway and the 55th Street bridge was 1.0 0.2 m/s. The ratio of phase speed to water speed is therefore 1.2, slightly less than the theoretical value of 1.5 if the channel is rectangular and the frictional resistance is constant (Henderson, 1966).
Travel Time of Flood Wave


A hydroelectric flood waves travels down Boulder Creek during the fall and winter. It is released from the Orodell Power Plant in Boulder Canyon between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. and passes under the Broadway bridge about 2 hours later. The wave form travels at about 1.2 m/s down Boulder Canyon and through the City of Boulder and the water discharge as the wave passes a fixed point is about 4 m3/s with water speeds of about 1 m/s. The amplitude of the original square wave in Boulder Canyon is about 0.4 m and this changes to a triangular form with a peak amplitude of about 0.2 m near the 95th Street bridge on the plains.


Henderson, F. M., 1966, Open Channel Flow, Chapter 9, Macmillian Company, New York, 521 p.

U. S. Geological Survey--Colorado, 1994, Water Resources Data for Colorado Water Year 1994, U. S. Geological Survey Water-Data Report CO-94-1.


Jeff Navarre and other people at the Public Service Company of Colorado were very helpful in providing information and at one time almost daily telephone calls to find out when the generators were started. Boulder County Land Use Department provided me with various scale maps for determining channel distance; Deborah Martin helped me make discharge measurements in freezing cold water; Dr. Alfred Redfield provided money to build the tide gage which was used as a water level recorder and Larry Barber spurred me to write this short memo and Deborah Martin, Steve Wiele, and Jim Bennett who made improvements to the memo.

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Last Page Update - Tuesday December 27, 2005