Monday, August 27, 2001

Flood victims want solution

Residents blame overbuilding

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Five weeks after flooding killed three people and caused millions of dollars in damage, Tristate residents touched by the muddy waters are demanding long-term solutions.

Jeanne and Duff Lewis, who live on Tanager Hills Drive, work on repairs to their basement, flooded by Polk Run.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        The region has had a run of devastating, deadly floods the past five years, and victims largely blame nonstop construction around the top of the Interstate-275 loop.

        Deerfield Township, for instance, has gained 2,687 homes since 1996. That means 2,687 more impervious surfaces where water could otherwise have soaked into the ground. Instead, more flows into creeks like Polk Run — little more than a trickle in dry weather — which can quickly overflow their banks.

        The township had widespread flooding July 18, but the results were fatal downstream in Symmes Township, where Polk Run swept 16-year-old Monica Kuchmar to her death.

        “We can put our banks back, but they can't get their daughter back, so somebody needs to do something,” says Duff Lewis of nearby Montgomery, who lost his back yard to Polk Run.

        The only way to solve the problem, say property owners in Montgomery, Evendale and elsewhere, is for affected communities to work together.

        Running water, they say, doesn't stop at city boundaries.

        There are signs that government is coming around.

Bad weather
               Stormwater experts insist Mother Nature and the law of averages — not development — are to blame

        for the July flood. Parts of Butler, Hamilton, Clermont and Warren counties got 5 or more inches in that storm — a near-record, according to the Midwest Regional Climate Center's records.

        “The thing everybody has to understand is when we talk about the 100-year flood, that means it has a 1 percent chance of occurring in a given year,” said Roger Setters, flood damage protection chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Louisville district. “The roll of the dice seems to be going against the local communities up there.”

        But people such as Fred Caston who have been hit by four or five “100-year” floods the past five years no longer believe they are flukes that will simply stop one of these days.

        His store, Cincinnati Pool & Patio, sat near Mill Creek in Evendale for three decades without a single flood before 1996, he says.

        The flood-prone Mill Creek also has brought two “100-year” events to Sharonville in the past five years, and the city is now calling its share of the July 18 torrent a 500-year flood.

        It's a national problem: the Sierra Club estimates that flooding damage in the 50 states has shot up 300 percent since 1990, to $6 billion and more than 100 deaths a year.

        Ohio had 60 flood-related deaths from 1989 to 1998, the Sierra Club says — third-highest in the nation.

        “We're having basically 100-year floods every other year now in the Midwest,” says Brett Hulsey, the Sierra Club's national anti-flooding coordinator.

Development blamed
               It's because we're destroying our wetlands, he says.

        Wetlands are the sponges that help soak water into the ground, preventing it from zipping into the nearest stream or basement. In Ohio, the Army Corps of Engineers has allowed at least 90 percent of these areas to be filled in, Mr. Hulsey says.

        Local governments and builders say regulations should ensure that development won't contribute to flooding. A property's runoff must be no greater after development than before.

        Builders often build retention ponds to fulfill the requirements. Upstream along Mill Creek in Butler County's Union Centre area, holding ponds spiffed up with fountains and picnic tables punctuate the maze of tall, sleek office buildings.

        Progressive stormwater management theories are being tried here, too.

        Schumacher Dugan Construction and Duke Realty are lowering creek banks that farmers had built to protect crops from flooding, said Schumacher Dugan official Chris Wunnenberg.

        In heavy rains, the lowered walls allow water to spill into sidesaddle retention ponds. The water slowly returns to the creek after the creek level goes back down.

        One of Schumacher Dugan's basins — still under construction — will be an 18-acre wetland complete with native grasses and trees to increase the cleansing and absorption of the water.

               It's time to try a new approach, residents say — one that looks at a creek's watershed as a single unit instead of splitting it into many political segments.

        Susan Ivers and others along Polk Run in Montgomery have asked their city to take a good, hard look at the creek. Deerfield already has formed a task force to investigate stormwater issues, and Mrs. Ivers would like to crash the party.

        “It's not going to make a big difference if each community looks at its own little area,” she says.

        Mill Creek communities have led the way, forming the Mill Creek Watershed Council six years ago, for information-sharing and joint cleanup efforts.

        Recent changes in federal and state law will make it easier for other communities to launch multi-jurisdictional efforts, Warren County Engineer Neil Tunison says.

        Now, developers are required to build stormwater controls for their parcel of land. Newly allowed stormwater utilities, however, can take a logical area such as the watershed for a creek and build stormwater controls for the big picture.

        Mason is creating a stormwater utility in October to tackle a wish list of $6.3 million in runoff control projects, according to city Engineer Richard Fair. It will be funded by charging households $3 a month and charging businesses based on how much impervious surface they have.

        Butler County is investigating starting a stormwater utility, and Warren plans to try the idea on a small watershed in Hamilton Township, another community with heavy residential growth.

        And yes, Mr. Tunison says, he'd be happy to join with other communities on shared watersheds such as Polk Run: “Amen.”


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