Many wish city would leave them high, dry
CHAMPAIGN — For residents of Champaign neighborhoods that in the past couple years saw major storm-water drainage overhauls, their story of Saturday's rainfall may have been very different.
For Jim Creighton, who lives in one of the neighborhoods still on a waiting list for substantial improvements, it was the same old story.
"It was catastrophic," he said Monday.
Actually, Creighton's neighborhood around Washington and Russell streets is one of the luckier ones, depending on how you look at it. It's on the city's short-list. Construction of a storm-water detention basin is already underway, and more plans are in the works to add storm-water capacity to his streets.
But many older areas are still wallowing in the depths created by a storm-water system that was built decades ago and not suited to handle the volume of water it often needs to drain. The $80 million backlog of projects that needs to happen to keep the city dry after a big rainstorm is maybe no more evident than after an extreme one like Saturday's.
It could take as much as $15 million to fix Creighton's neighborhood. Funding for expensive storm-water projects is at capacity, though, and some Champaign neighborhoods will be competing against each other for limited money as the rain continues to fall.
Despite the funding challenge, city officials have already made significant headway in tackling some of Champaign's most pressing and widespread drainage issues. They have finished projects along John Street and the eastern portion of West Washington Street.
If Saturday was any evidence, the work significantly eased flooding issues in those parts of town. Still, not all basements in those neighborhoods were dry.
The John Street improvements were designed to handle a "40-year storm" — a term used to describe the intensity of a storm that has a 2.5 percent chance of occurring in any given year. In other words, it would happen roughly once every 40 years.
Saturday's rainfall was more intense — Dennis Schmidt, Champaign's public works director, thinks it was a 50- to 100-year storm. With that in mind, the new John Street sewers "met all of our expectations and then some during the rain on Saturday," Schmidt said.
He concedes that some residents with wet basements would disagree. But the city put "the largest pipe we possibly could" underneath John Street to increase drainage capacity, and it relieved most of the typical above-ground flooding people used to see.
"We used to have a river running down John Street from curb to curb," Schmidt said. "None of that occurred this time at all."
Still, it was a massive storm. Any drainage system would have had trouble.
"There were a large number of backups into lower levels and basements," Schmidt said. "There are other ways that folks need to deal with that problem. The solution is not building a bigger and bigger pipe."
The city took out a $25 million loan in 2010 to finish those big projects on John Street ($6.1 million), the eastern portion of West Washington Street ($1.8 million) and the Boneyard Creek Second Street basin ($17 million).
City officials also observed a record water depth — 49 feet — at the Healey Street detention area, and the Boneyard Creek Second Street basin was "higher than it's ever been," but it had room for two or three more feet of water.
Green Street stayed dry. And yet the complaints came in.
"There's just no way the city can build a project that's going to protect everyone's basement," Schmidt said.
Creighton lost his furnace and water heater. Again. This is the fourth time his basement has flooded.
"I am very patient up to a point, and I lost my temper Saturday morning," he said.
He had four feet of water in his basement. Another six inches, he said, and it would have blown the electric panel. As of Monday afternoon, he had it drained and pressure washed, but it still stinks. Literally.
"Right now, I wouldn't let anyone in my house because it smells so bad," he said.
The story among his neighbors is relatively the same. One person's backyard was so flooded that all he could do was open the back door to his garage and let it drain out the front to the street.
And this is a neighborhood — on the west end of West Washington Street — where construction of a new, $2.1 million storm-water detention basin is already underway. That's the first of a three-phase project to fix drainage issues there.
"Basically, the hole filled up instantly, and we've had more water than we've ever had before," he said.
And then people started looking for someone to blame: The city. The engineers.
"It was a nightmare," Creighton said.
The new detention basin will help when it's done, Schmidt said. But "there was a sense of safety there that just wasn't based in reality."
"They're going to see a significant change from that standpoint," Schmidt said. "But we're going to see that rainstorm event, and I'm positive we're going to get a similar reaction. People will be people."
Creighton, a regular attendee of city council meetings, said he plans to speak tonight. He wants city officials to commit to funding the second phase of drainage improvements that would make substantial changes in his neighborhood, "which was promised to us when we stepped aside to allow full funding of John Street and east Washington."
Creighton's neighborhood is on the city's short list, but right now there's other work in other neighborhoods that could happen ahead of it.
And his West Washington Street neighborhood was an early victim of competition for that money. When the city issued $25 million in bonds in 2010 for three projects, Creighton's neighborhood was largely left out of that mix. The other three projects were high priorities, but Creighton feels he was told that he and his neighbors were next.
City council members want to finish a drainage study in the Garden Hills neighborhood — Hedge Road was flooded up to people's waists on Saturday — and they want to continue onto the third phase of the seven-phase overhaul of the Boneyard Creek. That's just north of University Avenue, across the street from the Second Street basin.
The first half of fixes to the West Washington Street area started this year, but for the foreseeable future, there's no money for construction of the second half of the project in that neighborhood. Creighton plans to tell the city council: "Basically not angry, but saying, 'You've got to find the funding for phase two.'"
City council members set those projects as their top priorities when they approved a budget for the new storm-water utility fee, which all property owners began paying last year. That provides $2.8 million annually in new funding.
And they were right, Schmidt said. Those high-priority areas were among the most flooded again.
"Council's priorities were confirmed this weekend," he said.
There are other bad areas that need fixes, too: Market Street and the Washington Street viaduct at the railroad tracks, just to name a couple. These are multimillion-dollar projects, and funds are limited. The time frame is "down the road."
That means some neighborhoods will be chosen first. Others will have to wait.
"All of these are expensive projects," Schmidt said. "They're highly developed areas, and it's very expensive to retrofit."
Council member Will Kyles said he got calls from his District 1 constituents in the northeast part of town, and he saw pictures from Garden Hills.
"Garden Hills definitely experienced flooding," Kyles said.
Those residents have been struggling with it for decades. Their flood insurance is high, he said, and it's an economic development killer — look, for instance, at the Market Street and Bradley Avenue area.
"That's a prime place for economic development," Kyles said. "But we really can't do anything, quite frankly, until they get that flooding issue taken care of."
Flooding prevention drove new development in Campustown. A hotel and student apartment complex going up near Sixth and Green in what used to be a parking lot never would have been possible without the city's extensive remodeling of the Boneyard Creek.
And it opens all kinds of other possibilities. Take care of flooding issues, and Garden Hills can start talking about new sidewalks, street lighting and redoing all the streets, Kyles said.
"It's going to attract the desire for people to invest in their properties," he said.
The city is going to have to make the investment first if officials want residents to invest in their own properties.
Creighton's neighborhood could cost as much as $15 million to fix, and the next few phases of the Boneyard Creek overhaul could cost near $3 million just to design — that doesn't include construction costs.
Money from the storm-water fee residents pay is occupied through 2017, and none of that is for the actual construction of drainage improvements.
And then there's the average $2.3 million the city owes each year to pay back its debt on the Boneyard Creek and Campustown improvements, John Street and Washington Street projects.
City officials plan to continue chipping away, though — kind of like Creighton's approach to cleaning his basement: Move the lightest piece of debris out to your backyard first as a catalyst to get going. Then, just hours later, you'll have it drained.
"You don't really cry," Creighton said. "You just look at it and shrug your shoulders."