Grand Forks engineers hope a federal grant will subsidize sewer upgrades near a pair of neighborhoods that flooded during a downpour about 18 months ago.

The stormwater systems underneath the Vail Circle and Glen Circle subdivisions near South Columbia Road and DeMers Avenue can be overwhelmed by more than an inch or two of rainfall, a problem that was underscored by a September 2019 downpour that flooded streets and basements in the neighborhood. The city has made some of the upgrades recommended in a 2002 study, and now hopes for a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that would pay for about 80% of the upgrades suggested by a similar study completed this year.

The 2002 study looked at a 1,010-acre piece of Grand Forks between DeMers, Columbia, 32nd Avenue and Washington Street, where three pump stations push water underneath 11th Avenue South and 24th Avenue South into the English Coulee and, ultimately, the Red River.

The study found that the stormwater systems there are undersized and that water backs up onto the street even during relatively modest rainfalls. It recommended “significantly” larger stormwater pumps at stations in Bringewatt Park and along 11th Avenue near Ben Franklin Park, plus new or additional pressurized pipes called “forcemains” that would accommodate the beefier pumps.

The city did some of that, upgrading the Bringewatt Park station – Pump Station 189 – in 2003, and the two adjacent to Ben Franklin Park – Pump Stations 188 and 182 – in 2007. But the forcemains underneath 11th and 24th remained more or less untouched. City Engineer Al Grasser said shortly after the 2019 floods at Vail and Glen Circles that Grand Forks’ city government upgraded the pump stations as much as it could, given the limitations of the forcemains there.

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Despite the upgrades, the roads in both subdivisions still flooded regularly, according to neighbors, but it was closer to a nuisance than the substantial flooding that followed the 2019 storms.

The more recent study was more focused than the 2002 one. It looked only at the area served by Pump Station 188, which is bordered by Columbia to the west, a line about 200 feet south of DeMers to the north, another line about 75 feet short of 23rd Street South to the east, and a rough line south of 11th that includes Vail and Glen Circles and a piece of the Columbia Meadows Office Park.

Like its predecessor, the new study recommended larger pumps and more piping. It called for a new, 30,000-gallons-per-minute pump station alongside Pump Station 188 that would quadruple the system's existing power there, plus a second, larger forcemain underneath 11th to Columbia. It also recommended adding more pumps to Pump Station 182 and installing a second forcemain that would run from it to 188. The idea being that improving drainage in the area served by 182 would mean less “overland” flooding from there to the area served by 188.

In all, those recommendations would cost about $7.7 million. Assuming the feds award the city the FEMA grant, that could leave approximately $1.54 million on the city’s tab.

And that’s where city staff and area residents might run into the same problem they did nearly 20 years ago: the price. The upgrades recommended in the 2002 study would have cost between $13.9 million and $15.8 million, a cost that would have been paid at least partly by nearby residents. After a meeting in December 2002, city staff noted that the general consensus among residents in the area covered by the first study was that they were unwilling to pay for any improvements by special assessments.

The same might be true today: city policy calls for 100% of the cost of a new pump station to be paid for by nearby residents, and, like they did in the early 2000s, neighbors there could easily balk at the $1.54 million – or more, if the grant doesn’t come through – they’d be asked to pay. Beyond that, moving to assess every property that might benefit would put the city in “uncharted territory,” according to Assistant City Engineer Mark Walker, because some residents would nonetheless benefit even if they aren’t close enough to the station to otherwise warrant an assessment.

But the city’s policies aren’t immutable, and Walker said there have been unique or unusual circumstances by which the city has paid more than it otherwise would to chip away at a large bill to residents.

“Would that happen here? Maybe. I just don’t know,” Walker said. “Our first task is to see where can we get additional funding for this project, because without additional funding it can’t fly.”

The city is set to hear whether it won the FEMA grant later this summer.