Hakim Berry, left, City of Detroit, chief operating officer and Jay C. Juergensen, right, president at Juergensen+Associates, LLC is a consultant on sewage and city planning.
As residents enjoy the high temperatures of the mid-summer season in southeastern Michigan, Detroit city officials and residents remember the devastation of flooding from recent years. Discussions put forth included mitigation strategies, including a contentious option to close off the canals for the construction of higher sea walls.
The city’s suggestion was met with strong opposition from waterfront residents on Detroit’s east side.
Longtime resident John Myers bought his eastside home on Scripps Street in 1994 and has experienced periodic flooding complications ever since.
“Three years after I bought my home,” said Myers, “We had high water and my 1920s wood seawall, or what was left of it, had water running both sides of my driveway, my house, the street. I went ahead and replaced my seawall, but I was naïve about things being completely fixed.”
Myers said the sea walls did not deter rising flooding and other issues with sewage back up in his home but created more issues.
“I don’t keep anything valuable in my basement,” said Myers. “I’ve replaced the boiler, built walls around it. I do what I can and it’s still not enough.”
Flood Damage Assessment of Jefferson-Chalmers Neighborhood
On May 25, the City of Detroit Department of Neighborhoods led a team of city administrators in a virtual meeting to discuss updates on the Jefferson Chalmers flooding risk reduction measures, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods due to waterfront proximity to the Detroit River.
“As you know, it started for us in 2019,” said Hakim Berry, city of Detroit’s chief operating officer, “Where the river levels were so high that we had compromised properties and it was about one out of every five that was breached and not only flooded and the streets, but it also put our wastewater treatment plants in a precarious situation because our pumps were then running 24 hours a day and it wasn’t raining.”
Due to this exceptionally heavy rainfall, the city worked to engineer contingency measures to protect properties from flooding.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) conducted the Lake St Clair Flood Risk Reduction Study for the Jefferson- Chalmers neighborhood, which is home to approximately 8,000 residents.
The study recommended structural and nonstructural flood risk measures in the area which “consists of more than 160 acres of waterfront parks, boat launches, fishing access points and other outdoor recreation opportunities. As part of the spring 2019 flood fighting efforts, flood barrier structures were created using sandbags and were employed to mitigate flood damages at roughly 94 of these parcels.”
Critical properties were identified along the streets of Ashland, Klenk, and Harbor Islands. Dozens of properties have shoreline elevations at or below 2022 forecasted water levels, noted as falling below the 577.50 value, based on observed 2019 elevations.
The Tiger Dam update presentation went over areas of improvement, including old, deteriorating sandbags and damaged or removed Tiger Dams.
In addition, on June 15, the Detroit Water and Sewage (DWSD) governing body, Board of Water Commissioners (BOWC), held a meeting and discussed city infrastructure damage caused by repeated flooding.
Michael Einheuser, Chairman of BOWC, asked how many streets are caving as a result of the flooding. A few commissioners said they see a lot of them around the city.
In response, Samuel Smalley, P.E., assistant director of Wastewater Operations for DWSD, said there are 300 sinkholes, but after the historic flooding last summer over 300 appeared between June 26 and July 15th.
City Discusses Closing Off Canals, Waterfront Residents Pushback
City officials, in conjunction with the Flood Management Services Program (FPMSP) presented three alternatives to mitigating flooding, including an open format with extensive floodwalls and closing the canal, levees and floodwalls outside (or within) of the wave run up zone.
The justification for closing of the associated six canals is the finding that they are the primary source for inland flooding and these measures would “result in flood risk reduction by preventing storm/wave run-up from overtopping the canal walls, which resulted in inland surface flooding that has historically overwhelmed storm and sanitary drainage systems.”
Jefferson-Chalmers residents are organizing a resistance to the public closure option of the canals.
“A lot of people did sea walls to fix their problem and still have flooding,” said Myers. “What they (the city) are proposing is to help with high water, they would close off the canals.
Even with all the fixes on the canal, it’s not going to take some people outside of the flood zone, many live further toward the river without flood insurance. There have been many bad decisions on this for 100 years. The biggest issue is actually infrastructure, the municipal water sewer system.”
“This is definitely something that is now on our radar,” said Council person Latisha Johnson of District 4, covering the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood.
She told Michigan Chronicle that listening to residents’ input is vital to ongoing conversations concerning alternatives to closing off the canals to public access.
“We’ll have conversation with the mayor about it to get his understanding and thoughts to make sure that I am articulating the requests of the community on how we can solve this issue because there have been people who have come up with a plan to say these things can be done without have to go that (sea wall) route.”
One such plan presented to the city is by Jay C. Juergensen, a consultant with 30 years of experience providing program and project design, real estate development, construction, and property management services, including water and sewage city planning.
“Examining how water moves through the community will be critical in considering green alternatives to traditional gray infrastructure,” said Juergensen. “Solutions will need to take into account and involve upstream neighbors making it also multi-jurisdictional and no ONE agency – be it DWSD, BSEED, GLWA, EGLE, the Army Corps, etc. will be responsible – making it multi-departmental at every level of government across municipal boundaries.
Juergensen presented his analysis to Detroit City Council Green Taskforce and other city entities. His research is part of the Jefferson-Chalmers Water Access, Tech, Education and Recreation (WATER) Project. The White Paper report seeks to identify dynamic solutions that will address the interconnected water resource management challenges in the Jefferson-Chalmers community.
The proposal includes using Fox Creek Gates and other assets to mitigate flooding and end sewage discharges, reviewing flood Insurance Rate maps and take actions to reduce insurance costs, extensively examining the hydrology of Conner Creek and Fox Creek Watersheds, modifying and increasing floodplain and stormwater capacity, researching Alter Road Flood Prevention Project, and revisiting new Floodplains Standards and acquire Fox Creek’s western edge.
The City Responds to Resident Concerns
“The City of Detroit is still in the process of determining the best course of action for reducing the risk of flooding for Jefferson-Chalmers residents while still maintaining canal and river access,” said to Hakim Berry, City of Detroit chief operating officer.
Seawalls are only one of several options we will be exploring in the months ahead, and we will continue to engage residents in order to determine the best and most cost-effective solution. To be clear, we are only at the beginning of the process and will be working with the community to determine the ideal course of action. We will be reaching out to residents for ways they can play a role as we continue the decision-making process.”
“My system is meant to manage rain, not the river,” Gary Brown, Director of DWSD and Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) board member said, “The city is only responsible for Right of Way (ROW) sewers. We keep the sewers clean and treat the rainwater in our facilities as the main assets we manage. When it comes to addressing long term flooding, it comes down to dollars. We need federal and state intervention.”
During the Tiger Dam update, the city responded to inquiries regarding the municipal responsibility to find a permanent solution to the flooding issue.
City officials said, “We are working on a multifaceted project with the goal of permanently removing the LES from the floodplain, eliminating the need for flood insurance and keeping the water in the canals. Property owners are still responsible for repairing failing seawalls along their canal frontage.”
For tips on safety measures during incidents of flooding, residents can access more information provided by the city of Detroit here. Other resources include basement backup protection, water assistance programs and financial assistance for costly private sewer lines repairs.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled John Myers’ last name as John Meyer.