City’s flood mitigation efforts starting to pay offPublished 10:00am Monday, June 17, 2013
Despite a record amount of rainfall this year, Austin hasn’t flooded.
That’s good news for the residents who can remember how brutal the 2004 Austin flood was. Though Austin has been lucky with the weather this year — most storms to hit the area have dumped significant rain south and east of town — many residents have the city’s flood mitigation project to thank.
City officials have completed more than half of the city’s flood mitigation projects over the past five years, from securing property in lower flood plains to building flood walls along the Cedar River.
For residents like David Hagen, a long-time Austin resident and a former president of the Mower County chapter of Pheasants Forever, the city’s flood mitigation plan has been crucial.
Hagen and his family have dealt with flooding in their home eight times, starting in 1976 when the Hagens lived in the former Wildwood Park neighborhood. The Hagens moved to a home on Knob Hill in 1994 after picking up the pieces from five of those eight floods. Their home hasn’t been damaged since David had a moat dug around the property. He knows he could have sustained more property damage had the city not started flood mitigation projects several years ago.
“It’s absolutely doing its job,” Hagen said about the mitigation effort.
Hagen joined more than 20 people interested in flooding Thursday night at the Austin Public Library, where Steven Lang, the city’s public works director, and Justin Hanson, resource specialist for the Cedar River Watershed District, discussed the recent area flood mitigation efforts.
The city will likely begin the last stages of the all-important North Main Project this fall, which will shore up the Cedar River from Interstate 90 past Mill Pond and the Fourth Avenue dam, where a bulk of the city’s flooding has taken place. The project is more than a year behind schedule, as city officials had to deal with ground contamination from the former Sinclair Gas Station.
“That held things up,” Lang told the crowd Thursday.
City officials had to work with the Sinclair Oil Company and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency after the MPCA found contamination in the ground from three gas holding tanks last year. Since then, the city and Sinclair have worked to figure out who was legally responsible for it.
The city finally bought the property from Sinclair earlier this year, after the company agreed to be liable for the contamination, with Austin responsible for whatever ground contamination it digs up during flood mitigation efforts. The Austin City Council will award a bid to demolish the gas station at its public meeting Monday.
The Sinclair property held up a key $5 million grant from the Economic Development Administration, which the city all but secured in 2010 to pay almost half of the $11 million projects left along North Main Street. The city has submitted paperwork and is awaiting the grant’s approval in time to begin bidding the project out this fall.
Once everything is set, workers will construct flood walls from Interstate 90 to the city’s municipal pool, in some places raising the road and in others varying the wall height.
Lang said the walls would all be at least as high as the 2004 flood in Austin, when the river rose to more than 25 feet high and cost the city millions in property damage. That flood became the worst to hit the area on record.
“We’d have permanent protection through the 2004 flood,” Lang told residents Thursday.
In addition, city workers would put in stop logs in open areas to prevent flooding, which Lang said would likely be put in more often than needed.
“We want to make sure they’re there,” he said.
If works starts on time this fall, the North Main project would wrap up in spring 2015.
Up the creek
City officials are already working on the next flood mitigation phases, however.
Residents living in flood plains near Turtle Creek and Dobbins Creek will receive letters from in the coming months with offers to buy their property, similar to the city’s property buyback program along the Cedar River. Those properties have to be taken into account before the city begins building berms, and sanitary sewer upgrades, starting next summer at the earliest.
“Some areas we’ve identified flood berms will take care of the problem,” Lang said. “Some areas we’re not able to protect them with a flood berm.”
Once workers have put in berms, the city would help individual properties protect themselves from flooding. The Turtle Creek project will likely cost $6 million while the Dobbins Creek project will take about $1.1 million to complete.
These projects are paid in part through the city’s local option sales tax, which will be collected through 2027 or until the city finishes its flood renovation. That may prove difficult, as some homes and businesses are still in nearby flood plains. While the city has planned to acquire those buildings as they come up for sale, it’s likely those places will continue to suffer flood damage.
“That will take many years to complete,” Lang said.
Flood of history
Sept. 15, 2004: The biggest flood on record hits Austin, with the Cedar River measuring 25.2 feet.
2005: The city commissions a feasibility study for the North Main Project. City officials begin efforts to convince voters to accept a local option sales tax initiative to pay for flood mitigation efforts.
2006: Austin residents pass the local option sales tax.
2007: City officials begin projects, which include acquiring residential property at Wildwood Park, stabilizing stream banks throughout Austin, and building a berm along East Side Lake.
2010: City officials plan to finish the North Main project, but operations are held up by the old Sinclair gas station property.
March 2013: The Austin City Council approves buying the Sinclair property, city workers finalize the application for a $5 million grant to finish the North Main project.
Fall 2013: Expected start of the last North Main project phases.
Spring 2015: Expected end date for the North Main project.