No natural disaster is ever a good thing, but we can learn valuable lessons from them. Reading around the web this morning, we're struck by the role earlier flood mitigation projects helped lessen the impact of flooding in Austin this past week.
Mayor Tom Stiehm writes in City has come a long way, a column about the recent flood:
I experienced my first Austin flood July 7, 1978. We were told at the time that it was a 100-year event. Ten days later we had our next 100-year flood, and the next one was five years later in 1983. We have had seven floods since 1978. They are no longer referred to as hundred year events.
In 2004, the water in Austin measured at the Wastewater Treatment Plant crested at the 25-foot level. Last weekend it was 22.5 feet. In 1978 when the level was 20.3, the city of Austin was brought to its knees, and it took weeks for things to get back to normal. At 22.5 feet last week, our city was pretty much up and running the next day. Many homes in town suffered much damage, including sewer back-ups and ground water. For the people who live in those homes, this was still a heart-wrenching event.. . .
. . .Last weekend, Congressman Tim Walz, Senator Norm Coleman, and Governor Tim Pawlenty have visited Austin to view the flood damage. They were all impressed with what the city has accomplished so far with our flood mitigation program.
Among the efforts being made are the formation of the Cedar River Watershed. The goal of the Watershed is to reduce the flow from the Cedar River during high water events by up to 20 percent. That alone would have translated to a high water mark of about 18 inches during our last flood. Most of this reduction would be brought about by changing land use upstream from Austin.
The half-percent sales tax has brought in approximately $1.2 million so far. This is above expectations.
Fifteen homes have been moved from the Wildwood Park area and the sewer infrastructure was improved so there was little or no damage in the Wildwood area this time.
Along with scattered site acquisitions, Jim’s Super Valu and the Eagles were relocated and spared.
Also, the North Main structural mitigation project is underway adjacent to Packer Arena.
The berms that protect our Wastewater Treatment Plant have also been improved so that we will hopefully never suffer like Mason City did. . . .
. . .Floods are obviously something out of our control, and we will always have high water events. The City has accomplished much, and we are still working hard to try and minimize the damage to Austin.
Some of the funds for the projects come from state bonding money or federal funds (for asbestos removal when buildings are removed, for example), but a significant part comes from a local sales tax Austin voters approved in 2006. The Post Bulletin reported (via Nexis; sorry, no active link)
In its first month of existence, Austin'shalf-cent sales and use tax, which began April 1, generated $37,000 for flood projects in the city, Finance Director Tom Dankert said.
Transferred on Friday from the state of Minnesota to the city of Austin, that amount only accounts for Austin businesses that file sales-tax revenue monthly, Dankert said. Some businesses file quarterly.
On Monday, the city also received a $3.16 million grant for floodprojects from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that originates from the Legislature's 2006 bonding bill, City Engineer Jon Erichson said.
Money from the half-cent tax only can be used for flood-mitigationprojects, including raising the local 50-percent match for state grants.
All items subject to the state's 6.5 percent sales tax are affected by the local-option tax, with the exception of motor-vehicle sales.
City officials have estimated the half-cent tax, which is limited to 20 years, will generate $700,000 a year, which would raise $14 million in 20 years.
Under those projections, the city should earn about $58,000 a month from the half-cent tax, Dankert said, although the monthly amount can vary.
After Austin's record flood in September 2004, the city created a comprehensive plan with $28 million worth of projects to prevent further flood devastation.
A year ago, legislators voted to approve the city of Austin's request to hold a referendum on the half-cent tax. In November, Austin voters approved the tax 5,465 to 3,186.
With a focus on the North Main Street area, the city is poised to do more than $6 million in projects this year and in 2008. . . .
(Post Bulletin, June 14, 2007)
Minnesota Representative Jeanne Poppe writes in Recent Flooding in Austin:
. . .This past weekend we had visits from government officials concerned about the city’s well-being. On Friday, I rode the bus with Congressman Tim Walz to see first-hand how the flood impacted the area and how mitigation strategies of the past few years effectively diverted the water flow and reduced the sewage back-up for many homeowners. At city hall on Saturday I attended a meeting with Senator Norm Coleman who commented that Austin is a model city for its work on flood mitigation efforts. He pledged to continue to work with the city and state elected officials and the congressional delegation.
Then on the morning of Father’s Day, Governor Pawlenty flew into town and got a ground-level tour to see how state bonding dollars have been spent. Once again this year Austin is one of the cities slated to receive grant dollars from the Dept of Natural Resources (DNR) for flood hazard mitigation. Over the years, the emphasis has been on assisting homeowners who have had repetitive flood damage. In 2005, I authored a bill at the state legislature allowing Austin to tax itself through a local option sales tax and to use those dollars for specific plans to protect homeowners and businesses. Austin citizens indicated their strong support for helping to solve the problem and we now need to continue to get dollars from DNR and the Dept of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to complete the projects.
Also in the 2008 bonding bill our region and more specifically the Turtle Creek Watershed and Cedar River Watershed districts will each receive $1 million dollars to create retention ponds and natural habitat collection areas to help slow the waters as they flow into Austin.
The recent flooding highlights the continued need and should help us receive the dollars to finish our efforts.
Disaster relief, such as that which will accompany the Presidential declaration Congressman Walz has requested with Senators Klobuchar and Coleman, is an appropriate role for government (see the Post Bulletin story Legislators seek federal aid for Mower flood damage for details). So, too, are flood mitigation projects.
No federal earmarks for Austin were included in Walz's most recent round of request, but there are several other flood mitigation projects in the request, including help for Houston, Fillmore and Winona Counties, as well as money for Owatonna.
The Owatonna People's Press called the latter An Earmark That Makes Sense and wrote:
. . .there are times when the projects are worthwhile. The earmark that Mr. Walz has proposed for Owatonna is one such case. What makes it important is that it is not a bridge to nowhere, but funds which will help a community prevent flooding and help residents keep their homes from being damaged. Keeping people and their property safe from the ravages of Mother Nature seems a worthwhile goal for the government.
The local and state partnership (assisted by some federal dollars) in Austin is an another example of that worthwhile goal in action.