Thursday, May 15, 2003

High-tech detectors spot high waters

Mill Creek system to warn of floods

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

By year's end, one of the nation's most sophisticated flood warning systems should be in place in the upper Mill Creek, giving business owners along the flood-prone waterway a measure of protection they've never before enjoyed.

The $352,000 system, a series of gauges and stations that feed rainfall data via radio into a computer in real time, will give those along Mill Creek up to 90 minutes of warning of a flash flood, officials say - enough time to close levee gates and move valuable equipment or merchandise out of harm's way.

Jeff Gauger
Final approval for the system is pending with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will pay for it. Officials expect that will come soon, and installation of the gauges will take about four months.

Floods have plagued the Mill Creek for decades - and over the years have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. With increased development in southern Butler County, where streams feed Mill Creek, runoff has grown worse. The most recent serious flooding occurred in July 2001, when water backed up in the Sharonville area, inundating Micro Center Mall, the Kenworth of Cincinnati truck dealership and other businesses. Damages in that community alone hit $60 million.

When the new system is in place, losses like those could be lessened or avoided. Local business owners welcome the early warnings.

"It's just a matter of time before the next flood comes," said Jeff Gauger, controller of Kenworth of Cincinnati. "It's not going to stop the rain or the water. (But) an early warning system is nice because it would allow us to possibly move our trucks. It's better than nothing."

Bulletproof system

The system already is in place along streams in Colorado and Kansas. Officials say it has a proven track record and can function even when lightning cripples power supplies in the area.

• The Mill Creek extends 28 miles, from Liberty Township in Butler County to the Ohio River in Queensqate, excluding its tributaries.
• The watershed covers 166 square miles, draining central Hamilton County and parts of southern Butler County.
• 750,000 people live and work within the watershed.
• The watershed contains 37 political jurisdictions.
• Within the creek's 100-year floodplain, there are 345 single-family residences, 65 multifamily residences, 145 commercial buildings and two public buildings, owned by Sharonville and Evendale.
• About 70 percent to 75 percent of the watershed is built out, with residential, commercial and industrial uses.
Source: Enquirer research
New monitors on the Mill Creek
"It's sophisticated because it's bulletproof," said Ilse Gayl, president of Colorado-based Diad Inc., which makes the software crucial to the system. "You can take down the phone systems. The power can go out. (That) data will continue to come in. In that sense, it's extremely sophisticated."

The system will be based in Sharonville and Evendale. It will track rain levels at seven field stations and more than 30 rain gauges in Butler and Hamilton counties. And it's redundant; if there's a problem with the Sharonville station, the Evendale station can take over.

Once the system is up and running, any computer user can visit a Web site sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey to check the water's height at the nearest rain gauge. By checking on several gauges, they can discern how quickly floodwaters are moving.

Trained emergency workers will staff the base stations in Evendale and Sharonville. They will alert police and firefighters when the waters are treacherous.

While they'll be able to page some business owners, most community members will receive warnings of approaching floodwaters by the police and firefighters, who would call them and knock on their doors.

The Mill Creek Watershed Council, Millcreek Valley Conservancy District, Ohio Emergency Management Agency and the Cincinnati Metropolitan Sewer District are just some of the agencies that have pushed for the flood warning system along Mill Creek.

Their top executives know the futility of preventing floods along the stream, especially as development to the north replaces land that normally would soak up the rain, causing more runoff.

The 28-mile stream is considered such a flood hazard that some say the only true solution is boring a 16-mile tunnel, more than 30 feet in diameter, under the creek so that heavy rainwater can be swept toward a treatment plant near the Ohio River.

Bob Jansen, chief engineer for the Millcreek Valley Conservancy District, called the $800 million tunnel "the ultimate solution." While the corps inches forward with its tunnel studies, he said the warning system is a crucial tool.

"It's a tool to help relieve damage. We'll get the most state-of-the-art" equipment, he said. "It's not a solution to flooding. It's just going to provide additional time."

Praised in Colorado

Bob Smith of Fort Collins, Colo., knows that for a fact. The city's water planning manager recalled the chaos that the city experienced in July 1997. Ten inches of rain fell in six hours. A swollen creek flooded two mobile home parks, causing several deaths.

Smith pushed for the flood warning system that is considered one of the best in the country. Two monitoring stations, 70 rain gauges, and the same software that will be used in Cincinnati give the city a sense of security.

"That's the biggest (advantage) ... to be able to have information in real time so that you can notify people for evacuation," Smith said. "To be honest with you, it's wonderful. You know exactly what's going on. Before, we were guessing what was taking place. We basically would be reactive. Now, we're proactive."

Evendale Fire Chief John Vail can't help being skeptical. He's seen the havoc wreaked by floods, and he's irked that the warning system will do nothing but alert property owners that yet another flood is coming.

"To me, it's sort of a placebo," he said. "I'd much rather see (the corps) use the money for other work. It's not the answer. It's a short-term solution to a long-term problem."

While local officials await final word from the corps, Sharonville and Evendale have tentatively pinpointed where their monitoring stations will go. For Sharonville, it's the police station. In Evendale, it's the fire station.

In the meantime, Sharonville Police Chief Michael Schappa tends to flip to the Weather Channel every time there's another spring deluge.

"The fact that we will eventually have (the flood warning system) is very significant," he said. "We'll manage through one more spring without it. And hopefully when we do get the system, it'll just make life easier for everybody."


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