LWV focus on flood control

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 23, 2001

"July 10, 2000, was the worst flood in the history of Austin.

Tuesday, January 23, 2001

"July 10, 2000, was the worst flood in the history of Austin."

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With those words Austin City Engineer Jon Erichson began a sometimes lively discussion of the current state of flood control efforts in Austin during the January meeting of the League of Women Voters.

Austin experienced major floods in 1978, 1983, 1985, 1993 and, of course, in 2000. Erichson said that 400 homes and 25 commercial businesses were damaged in the 1978 flood. As a result of the 2000 flood, 150 to 175 homes and properties were damaged.

The reason for the decrease in numbers of damaged properties over a 22-year period is the city of Austin’s flood control response to the 1978 flood, Erichson said.

"Since 1978, 160 properties have been acquired out of the flood plain," he said.

In 1979, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) studied the effects of the 1978 flood on Austin and measured the benefit to cost ratio of modifying the city’s flood control channels, building levees, constructing two dams to the north of town and acquiring properties in the flood plain area. The acquisition option had the largest benefit to cost ratio – 0.86, closest of the four options to the desired ratio of one.

The city acquired properties with the help of "a very large grant" dispersed after the 1993 floods. In that year, flooding occurred throughout the United States, and so more funds were made available for flood control efforts. The money was used to follow through with suggestions made in the ACE study.

In addition, the Fourth Avenue bridge was replaced after 1978 by another with a higher profile, which positively impacted residents on the north side of the bridge.

The city of Austin recently has requested that ACE return to do another study. However, due to the city’s acquisition of properties in the flood plain, the benefits may be substantially less than they were at the time of the 1979 study.

The 2000 flood was 25 percent greater in flow than that in 1978. While 4.5 million gallons per day typically flow through the waste water treatment plant, during last year’s flood 20 million gallons flowed through the plant – a 400 to 500 percent increase.

The excess flow, Erichson said, was discharged into storm water lagoons to the south of the plant and were either held there for treatment or chlorinated and dechlorinated and dispersed into the river.

"We have a very aggressive flood control ordinance," said Erichson of the current status. Austin is now ranked in the top 12 percent in the entire country for how it administers its flood plain.

District Conservationist Sue Glende informed the group that Mayor Bonnie Rietz, present at the meeting as well, recently sent a letter to State Conservationist Bill Hunt requesting a feasibility study for the city of Austin. The key to having the study approved, Glende said, is a locally driven project and initiative.

However, current inadequate staffing and the change in presidential administration means that this study could wait for one to two years.

Presently there is a representative in Austin studying the property acquisition approach from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Austin is the second city, after Birmingham, Ala., to be studied in the nation.

"The Birmingham study showed that total acquisition cost was $36 million and the losses avoided were $60,309,000," said Erichson.

Rochester is another city that has waited in the past for flood control improvements. From the time of its initial application in the 1950s until the first dam was build in 1987, more than 30 years had passed.

Yet Area Engineer Rob Romocki of the Natural Resource Conservation Service said the wait had more to do with the complacency of Rochester residents and city staff, who put flood control on the back burner when flood concerns were not immediately present.

When the plan was finally implemented in Rochester, seven large flood control dams were built, land acquisitions were made and channels were constructed. The city’s portion of the bill was approximately $13 million.

After Romocki, Glende and Erichson spoke, many questions were posed and suggestions for flood control were offered. The possibility of constructing more storage ponds was raised by both Al Layman and Dwight Ault, who said that the original idea for more ponds was former mayor and former state representative Leo Reding’s idea.

Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District Board Member Bob Goetz said that ponds already in place seem to be full "within inches of capacity during the dry season." Erichson said that the ponds seem to be adequate and one specifically mentioned behind Casey’s is very granular and so the water that collects there "never makes it to the storm sewer."

Erichson, Glende and Romocki said that any new solution, such as additional storage ponds, would have to be studied for its environmental and watershed impact. Plus, certain guidelines for a 100-year flood event must be followed for any work done in the area.

"Of all of the structures flooded in 2000, only one was outside of the 100-year flood plain," Erichson said. That area was the railroad area out near Austin Industrial Supply.

"It’s scary to stand outside of your house and you watch the water come closer and closer," said concerned resident Catherine Buxton.

Buxton brought several pictures of the flood to the meeting and asked Erichson, "Why does the Cedar River overflow? It’s like a pond; it’s not even like a river."

Erichson said, "That is nature’s way." The areas where water sits are naturally low areas and unfortunately more low areas existed at one time, but were built on.

Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District Board Member John Bramwell added that Austin is "so overgrown in the discharge area" that the water will and does go where it needs to despite what is in its way.

Romocki’s comments earlier on Rochester’s experiences with flood control show that the greatest danger Austin now faces is in it residents forgetting what they experienced last summer. Of the group assembled at Monday’s meeting, it seems clear that no one will be forgetting the 2000 flood any time soon.