Complaints push Champaign toward fixing flooding problems

Complaints push Champaign toward fixing flooding problems

CHAMPAIGN – When it rains, it stinks.

For some Champaign residents, the phrase is more literal than they might like it to be.

"This is sewage," said Champaign resident Cindy Wachter. "This is nasty."

That's what she thought when she saw "human waste" floating on top of 8 inches of water in her basement last year. Wachter's home lies in the John Street watershed, a drainage plain that has been causing problems for residents since the first half of the 1900s.

"A few hours later it will subside," Wachter said. "And then what I do is get a hose and a squeegee, and I hose it off and squeegee it toward the drain."

Heavy rains can stress the neighborhood's storm sewer system, causing the notorious flooded streets and basements that area residents have come to know well. Sometimes it can mean sanitary sewers backing up into basements.

Glenda Fallon said her home is situated higher above John Street, saving her from a flooded basement. But in the 30 years she has been living there, a flooded street is not uncommon.

Thirty years ago, Fallon said, "our son would get out there on an inner tube."

Several extreme rainstorms in the past two years have brought some residents to their tipping points, and a flood of complaints to the Champaign City Building might have finally brought a resolution to the problem.

If city officials can figure out a way to pay for the projects, residents will see $16 million worth of improvements to three city drainage areas: the John Street, Washington Street East and Washington Street West watersheds.

Higher-capacity storm sewers and enhanced drainage facilities could be installed within the next four years if there are no unexpected problems or delays.

Drainage studies since 1926 have recommended improvements to the Boneyard Creek drainage system, according to documents provided by Assistant City Engineer Eleanor Blackmon. A couple have specifically mentioned upgrading the John Street storm sewer.

But little action has been taken in the three drainage areas, Blackmon said. Planned projects have been killed due to lack of money, similar to the situation the city now faces.

The difference now, Blackmon said, is that this term's council considers it an infrastructure problem rather than a quality-of-life issue.

"This particular council is considering drainage to be a basic service," Blackmon said.

That's good news for residents like James Creighton, whose home lies in the Washington Street West watershed. When remnants of Hurricane Ike floated north to Champaign last summer, four feet of rain accumulated in his basement, he said.

He bought some extra sump pumps, replaced his water heater and furnace – costing him about $2,000 – and "moved on with his life" ... until the following year, when heavy rains flooded his basement with two feet of water while three sump pumps were running.

"It was on the second day of that two-day flood that I had my cell phone, and I knocked on everyone's door on my block and said, 'Here, call the city,'" Creighton said.

Not long afterward, seven residents formed the Washington Street West neighborhood steering committee, of which Creighton now serves as spokesman. Residents of the other two watersheds followed, and consequent information-gathering sessions and meetings with city officials have produced results.

"The old adage 'you can't fight city hall' is not applicable here," Creighton said.

Residents are thanking city officials now, but Steve Cochran, a member of the John Street steering committee, said "some people were hot under the collar" during the first meeting with the city.

"The first reaction is just pure frustration and anger," Creighton said, adding that some residents wondered why nothing had been done to correct the known drainage problems.

"Those days, they didn't design for as large a rain event as we do now, and really they didn't have very good standards at all," he said.

The improvements will protect residents against much larger storms than the current system does.

The city council will meet in January to discuss how to finance the suggested improvements. Among the options are a bond issue, special assessments, implementation of a storm water utility fee or cost-share program, for which the city and affected homeowners each share a percentage of the burden.

Speakers from all three neighborhood steering committees have supported the storm water utility, a fee that would charge all property owners in the city and is intended to burden all city residents equally.

Finance Director Richard Schnuer has said a charge of $50 per year to the average residence could be appropriate to finance the projects. Commercial and industrial properties with more impervious surface areas – like roofs, driveways and parking lots – would be charged a higher fee than average residences.

Financing issues could delay drainage improvements in other parts of the city, like the third phase of a Boneyard Creek project or the implementation of a Phinney Branch master plan.

After the city council decides on a financing plan, work on the first phase of the project – the installation of a larger storm sewer under John Street – could begin in mid-2011.

Until then, residents like Wachter and Creighton will have to cross their fingers and hope for a drought.

"I'm rather casual about the whole thing," Creighton said. "It happens."

Reimbursement program

CHAMPAIGN – To avoid sanitary sewers backing up into basements, residents of flood-prone areas might want to take advantage of a city reimbursement program.

Residential property owners in the city can receive 75 percent reimbursement for the cost of installing sewage ejection systems in their homes, according to Assistant City Engineer Eleanor Blackmon.

When the backups became so bad in the area surrounding the intersection of Daniel Street and Willis Avenue, the city increased reimburse-ment to 100 percent for homes in that area.

Cindy Wachter, of the 1000 block of West Daniel Street, said backed-up sanitary sewers caused problems for her.

"The cabinets that absorbed that water are nasty," she said.

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