Grand Forks leaders formally agreed to another study of southside drainage problems.
City Council members voted unanimously on Monday to approve a $95,000 engineering services agreement with Webster, Foster and Weston Engineers to study and recommend ways the city could improve the stormwater systems in a trio of southside neighborhoods and the surrounding area.
The study comes about two months after a thunderstorm poured more than 5 inches of rain on Grand Forks, flooding houses across the city and pushing its storm and sewer systems to their limits. Residents who live at Vail Circle and Glen Circle, a pair of adjacent neighborhoods near the intersection of DeMers Avenue and Columbia Road, approached council members shortly afterward to detail the damage their homes had sustained.
Several neighbors in either neighborhood told the Herald that the streets there flood frequently, and some reported thousands upon thousands of dollars' worth of damage after the tremendous storm. The area is relatively low-lying, and water from other drainage basins spills into it, City Engineer Al Grasser told council members.
The study would look at the area served by Pump Station 188, which includes the Vail and Glen Circle neighborhoods plus a third called Westward Acres. It’s part of a network of pipes and pumps that stretches from DeMers Avenue in the north to 32nd Avenue in the south, and Columbia Road to the west and Washington Street to the east. That station plus two others pump water to the English Coulee, where it drains into the Red River.
The city commissioned a similar study of that area in the early 2000s, which found that stormwater systems there struggled to keep up with even an inch of rain over 24 hours.
Before Monday’s meeting, some council members considered pushing to broaden the new study’s scope. In an email to Council member Ken Vein, Council member Jeannie Mock said she thinks the three neighborhoods need to be studied, but the $95,000 price tag seemed expensive for a relatively small area.
“I'm just wondering if it would cost say $120,000 but we get an additional mile around the area perhaps a little extra money would be worth it for planning not only there but a larger area of the city,” Mock wrote. Neither she nor Vein, who worried about striking a balance between “overkill” and going “cheap” in his reply to Mock, suggested altering the study at the council meeting.
The city aims to build its storm infrastructure to a level that can withstand a “five-year” storm, meaning an amount of rainfall over 24 hours that has a 20% chance of occurring in a given year.
The 2002 study indicates that the Vail and Glen neighborhoods fall well short of that threshold and, after southside homeowners by-and-large said they didn’t want to chip in, the city only did a portion of the $13.9 million to $15.8 million worth of upgrades the study recommended.
The new study, city staff said, will consider creating areas where excess storm water can “pond” rather than flow to the Vail, Glen and Westward neighborhoods -- the old one did not. Upgrading storm sewers in a way that could alleviate flood worries at Vail and Glen Circle could also improve drainage in the area as a whole.
“We could reduce the severity of everybody’s flooding if we implemented those things that were identified in the previous study. Unfortunately, it took a lot of money,” Assistant City Engineer Mark Walker told the Herald. “The question we’re trying to figure out now is ... if we can spend just some of that money, what option will give us the biggest bang for our buck in this low-lying area?”
At least two residents are hoping for more than a study. Gary and Maren Niemeier said they’ve spent nearly $50,000 to fix up water damage to their home and they hope the city can help them out financially.
“While it's commendable that the city is willing to invest in a long-term study of storm drainage I must tell you — our representative — that our needs are in the here and now,” Gary Niemeier wrote to Vein, whose ward encompasses the couple’s home in Glen Circle. “Our damage has already happened.”
Maren Niemeier warned council members at Monday’s meeting that homes in that neighborhood might become “unsellable and uninsurable.”
But it’s seemingly more complicated than just cutting a check. North Dakota’s constitution prevents cities from using property tax revenue as direct aid to individuals or organizations, and federal “community development block grants,” which were used to rebuild swaths of Grand Forks after the infamous Flood of 1997, aren’t an option either because the Niemeiers exceed the maximum income level for eligibility.
“It's a fact that the drainage system was known to not be as good as it should have been, especially in our area,” Gary Niemeier wrote to Vein. “Decisions have been made, or not made, over the years, which at the time I'm sure were rational and carefully considered. But underlying it was a bet that the worst could be avoided. Well, now it has happened. Grand Forks needs to own up to the fact and help us recover.”
The study could produce an “early deliverable” by January, Grasser told council members.