Top of the Morning, July 28, 2014: From the archives

Top of the Morning, July 28, 2014: From the archives

Amy Felty knows what Jim Creighton is going through. Although decades separate their direct contact with city hall, the reasons are identical.

If the results eventually are identical too, then Creighton may be able to relax when a heavy rain comes along.

"Everybody deserves to have the infrastructure in place to be able to live well and to know your home isn't going to be flooded," said Felty.

It was the spring of 1990 when the Phinney Branch poured 3-1/2 feet of water into Felty's basement on Clover Lane in southwest Champaign.

"It's better now," Felty said. During the heavy rains earlier in July, "we almost flooded. The water came up in our yard again." Parts of the street flooded — as did many streets, and basements, throughout the area — but her basement stayed dry.

That result took a lot of work and a lot of persistence.

Former Champaign Mayor Dannel McCollum, who made flood prevention a major issue during his tenure, said little thought is given to flooding until it happens.

He said measures in Champaign to curtail flooding constitute "the biggest public works projects the city has ever done," costing many millions of dollars.

The projects always face opposition, in part because they cost so much.

"The Boneyard project was saved three times by substantial floods," he said. "The problem is that until you have a big flood and you have a foot of water in your basement, you don't worry about it."

Felty took the lead in pleading her neighborhood's case before the city council following that flood in May 1990 and two more, one that brought raw sewage into the basement in December 1990 and another from the Phinney Branch in August 1993 — when much of the Midwest experienced flooding.

She emerged as the spokeswoman for the neighborhood, speaking at city council meetings, keeping pressure on to identify sources of flooding and to find a solution.

"I kept at it and kept at it and kept at it," she said.

Along the way, she faced limited funding, different government agencies controlling part of the problem or solution and, she recalls, recalcitrant land owners downstream.

But a bridge that had acted as a sort of dam on Hemlock Drive got removed. Storm sewers and sanitary sewer lines got untangled. The Phinney Branch got widened.

Just a couple miles north, it's been a couple weeks since Creighton went to the Champaign city council to keep pressure on for relief from flooding that has plagued his neighborhood along West Washington Street.

He'd been at it for five years. After his neighborhood flooded in May 2009, 200 people attended a meeting at Champaign Central High School, along with city council members and staffers from the city.

"We were encouraged to form a group to meet directly with staff to find a solution," Creighton said. "I was approached by a neighbor that I didn't know (who) asked me to join. I actually said no at first."

But then he took on the role of dealing with the city council, including addressing the issue at council meetings, as well as becoming a spokesman on the issue for the neighborhood.

The neighborhood group backed a new city fee specifically intended to address flooding. It's expected to bring in $3 million a year.

"We got a $3 million storm water utility fee passed, but with $80 million in projects needed, it doesn't come in fast enough," Creighton said. "These are all million-dollar projects and the money isn't there."

Creighton also points out a difference in perspective:

"By city government standards, our project is moving at lightning speed. (But) having been flooded and lost property three times in six years, they are not moving fast enough."

After cleaning up from another flood in July, and after expressing concerns over construction noise well into the evening in the neighborhood, "I'd had it" and he left the neighborhood committee.

Felty, who moved to Chicago for work for a time and is now retired and back in Champaign full-time, acknowledges things are better not only in her neighborhood, praising the Boneyard improvements the city has made and, with Creighton, crediting McCollum for pressing for flood relief.

McCollum said growth of the city taxes the drainage capacity of decades ago.

"We're playing catch-up for building beyond the design limits of stormwater drainage we have built," he said. "It's aging and there's also an increased demand."

So the problem is most acute in older parts of town. Requirements for new construction take water detention into account.

"We're a little more thoughtful about what we require to handle storm events," he said.

Creighton also says the current council appears committed to relief, but points out city elections will take place next year and three seats will change hands.

Felty, meanwhile, has a concern about government generally.

"I think our government has become non-responsive to the needs of individual and group requests for neighborhoods," she said. "It has nothing to do with the common good any more."

Floods over the years

You may have noticed that it's pretty flat around here.

So when it rains, there aren't many places for the water to go, especially if there's a lot of water at one time: streams, streets and basements.

Some of the bigger downpours:

— July 1987: Heavy rains flood streets and viaducts in Champaign-Urbana.

— Nov. 15-16, 1988: An overnight storm hits Champaign-Urbana, flooding streets.

— May 1989: The Embarras River floods in Villa Grove.

— March 1990: A bridge west of Bismarck is closed until it can be inspected following flooding in the Vermilion County community.

— May 1990: Widespread flooding in Champaign. The Phinney Branch overflows in southwest Champaign, filling basements and sending corn stalks and other debris from nearby fields into yards. The Boneyard floods buildings on the University of Illinois campus. Two city workers clearing sewer inlets catch a catfish swimming in a city street.

— Dec. 30, 1990: Heavy rains bring flooding to Villa Grove and Vermilion County.

— May 1991: Basements flood in Mahomet after nearly 5 inches of rain. Hedge Road in Champaign is waist-deep in water.

— January 1992: Flooding hits Danville, closing roads and bridges.

— July 1992: Garden Hills neighborhood of Champaign hit by flooding. Viaducts downtown also flood.

City involvement

Here are Champaign city reports on flooding over the years in various parts of the city:

The Phinney Branch, a 1996 report. (An 11MB pdf file)

A plan for the Cooper Slough from 2007. (A 42MB pdf file)

The East Washington watershed, from October 2009. (A 9MB pdf file)

The draft report on West Washington, from September 2009. (An 8.3MB pdf file)

The Second Street reach and detention project.

The John Street project, March 2009.

The city memo on the stormwater utility fee residents and businesses now pay.

More information on the stormwater fee.

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