Flooding concerns are still there

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 7, 2002

The question some citizens ask is this: "If Austin doesn't do something, will that accomplish anything to prevent the next flooding?"

Simply moving houses and other buildings from harm's way doesn't address the root problem causing flooding. There must be another way and there is, according to citizen-activists who refuse to go away.

Members of the Flood Action Citizens Task Source (FACTS) group, which Marie Casey and Alice Snater started in the late 1970s, believe they have an answer.

Email newsletter signup

FACTS tackled flooding problems in Austin after the twin 100-year-floods in 1978. A series of flood buyout programs followed. Property in the designated flood plain was acquired, homes and businesses sold and the land cleared.

Other flood control measures, berms, levees and dikes, were studied. But flood buyouts were judged to be the most cost-effective undertaking.

More recently, floods or high water in 1999, 2000 and 2001 resulted in more calls for flood control. The net result: Still more flood buyouts and nothing else.

Now, FACTS members want serious attention given to hiring a watershed coordinator and looking at the big picture for flood control instead of the tunnel vision of buyouts.

Laura Friest offers example

Laura Friest is project coordinator for the Upper Iowa river Watershed Project. She works from the offices of the Northeast Iowa Resource and Conservation Development agency at Postville, Iowa.

In her position, she has a six-county area in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa encompassing 640,000 acres.

Two and a half years ago, her services were retained. "People started noticing there's something wrong in the watershed," she said. "It was kind of like what is happening in Austin now. You don't want to let flooding happen over and over again."

Friest was the guest speaker at the April 22 meeting of FACTS held at the Austin Eagles Club; itself a frequent victim of Cedar River flooding in the city.

Friest told how her work as a watershed coordinator was making an impact.

Friest has been successful in finding funding sources for her work; over $1.2 million in state and federal grants, as well as private sector contributions, too.

She said a synergy takes over among landowners, government officials and others involved in a watershed project, because, "Everybody wants good quality water. Who doesn't?"

"The key," she said, "is building a sense of a watershed community so they feel responsible for each other."

She said a commitment must be made to fund and otherwise support the watershed work for a 5-year period.

She also believes no solution should be completely ignored. "You can't say one solution is better than another. Flood buyouts and increasing the flood plain may be one component of a larger solution," she said.

Friest said the city of Austin is crucial to the triumph over flooding.

"The city must buy into this. They have the most to gain and the most to lose," she said.

Seeking support for plan

Kyle Klaehn is one of those who believe the time has come to seriously consider creating a watershed coordinator's position.

The Austin businessman owns Double K Specialty, Inc., which is located in the flood plain near the Austin Eagles Club.

After hearing Friest speak to the FACTS group, Klaehn was impressed

'We will continue to press forward to get this position funded," he vowed. "We will also continue to pull together individuals, groups and organizations who are directly affected by a project involving the entire watershed. That includes groups like Pheasants Forever, the Izaak Walton League, Friends of the Nature Center, anybody we can convince this is the right approach to take."

Idea being resurrected … twice

Bev Nordby, the district manager for the Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District, drafted a proposal to crate an Upper Cedar River Watershed coordinator's position in May 2001.

Nordby recommended a coordinated effort by the city of Austin, Mower County

and SWCD to study and implement best management practices in the watershed, encompassing 98,291 acres of the Turtle Creek watershed, 46,243 acres of the Middle Fork watershed, 25,261 acres of the Roberts Creek watershed and 83,315 acres if the Upper Cedar River watershed. That's nearly 250,000 acres of land in Freeborn, Mower, Steele and Dodge counties.

Nordby's proposal was thorough, beginning with the goal of monitoring water flow in the Cedar River watershed in Mower County, with an emphasis on the Upper Cedar River Townships.

A comprehensive water flow and sedimentation study followed by a work plan, approved by all government units, was another component.

Then, best management practices would be implemented with first attention given to wetlands restoration and water retention.

Grant searches would be conducted to cover the anticipated $102,000 in start-up expenses, including an estimated $57,000 annual salary for the coordinator.

Nordby observed last May, "This watershed project will not prevent the flood similar to the 2000 floods."

With input from the city of Austin's Jon Erichson, director of public works, and Craig Hoium, planning director, the proposal attracted immediate, albeit lukewarm interest, before being rejected by the city of Austin and Mower County, during last summer's budget discussions.

FACTS immediately embraced the last watershed coordinator proposal and now it is being rekindled before officials who will begin new budget talks this summer.

"I really believe there is wide support for the idea," Nordby said.

The SWCD district manager said having a coordinator is the key to a much larger plan of flood control.

"If we have one person focused on certain areas, one person focused on funding best management practices and water flow and if that one person has a work plan that gets used and doesn't sit on a shelf and gather dust, that will be the key to its success" she said.

She admitted no work plan can absolutely prevent true acts of God, such as a 100-year-flood from happening, but "we don't want to see it getting any worse."

The effort will also need a commitment from the financial partners to fund the effort for a minimum of 3 to 5 years according to Nordby.

Endgame or new game?

A decade ago the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, city of Austin and Mower County funded the East Side Lake Improvement Project Study.

The study's objective was to identify the sources of excessive sedimentation and nutrient contributions to Dobbins Creek and Ease Side Lake. And to develop a plan to improve the water quality in East Side Lake.

The result of the study was a 14-point program. Topping the list was hiring a water specialist and implementing a public information program.

Other recommendations included best management practices as filter strips and wetland restoration.

Nordby admitted the plan is "nothing new." Just an idea that nobody has been willing to see through in lieu of the flood buyout efforts.

"This isn't new stuff by any means," she said.

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at :mailto:lee.bonorden@austindailyherald.com