Traverse City News and Events

Here Comes The Rain Again: Flooding Impacts Region

By Beth Milligan | Oct. 24, 2020

Hard rains deluged the Grand Traverse region Thursday and Friday, resulting in flooded roadways, leaking buildings, and a sewage backup at an elementary school. As residents and business owners grapple with the immediate impacts, local governments – including The City of Traverse City and Grand Traverse County – are ramping up efforts to shore up infrastructure and prevent further flooding damage in the future.

An estimated four to five inches of rain fell across northern Michigan in roughly a 24-hour period starting Thursday afternoon. In downtown Traverse City, a private sewer line owned by Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) running from Central Grade School to a city-owned main backed up because of the rains, causing a sewage spill in the school. Traverse City Director of Municipal Utilities Art Krueger says city staff went to the school to assist TCAPS officials in handling the spill. Root infiltration and clogged materials in the pipes – including masks – contributed to the backup, Krueger says. TCAPS could not fix the backup and get the building cleaned before staff and students were expected to arrive Friday morning, so the district cancelled school Friday. TCAPS Executive Director of Communications Christine Guitar says the sewage issue has since been resolved, with the district planning to reopen Central Grade Monday.

In other parts of town, drivers on their Friday morning commutes encountered several flooded streets – notably on Peninsula Drive (a portion of which washed out, closing down the road), the intersection of South Airport and Three Mile roads, the intersection of Lautner and Bunker Hill roads, Marina Drive at Clinch Park, and Eleventh and Cedar streets in the neighborhood around Munson Medical Center. Raymond Minervini Jr. of The Minervini Group says that while the tributary near Left Foot Charley at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons overflowed its banks, staff were able to put down lines of sandbags to “ensure water stayed away from buildings” – avoiding flooding that hit Building 50 and other surrounding structures hard in May. Minervini says The Village – which received 4.54 inches of rain in 24 hours, according to a rain gauge on-site – also ran a pump in a parking retention area to reduce flooding and monitored and cleaned storm drains “that were frequently clogging with leaves, which seemed to be a source of street flooding in several areas around the greater Commons.”

Krueger confirms leaves clogging storm drains was an issue throughout Traverse City. “There were just a lot of streets and intersections flooding due to leaves clogging the catch basins,” he says. “We had crews out trying to clean those out, including myself. It was a challenge. Over time things drained properly, it just took longer with the clogged catch basins.” The timing of the rains was bad luck, Krueger says; Thursday was the first day city residents had permission to rake their leaves into the streets in piles for pickup that begins Monday. The flooding impacted some downtown businesses; Golden Shoes on Front Street posted on social media that the store would only take online/phone orders until further notice and close its physical location “due to massive flood damage here at the store.”

The city was able to avoid flooding in a particular area of downtown, however, that three times this year caused sewage to overflow into the Boardman River from a drain near Union Street. City staff installed a temporary containment pool in late summer around the site that can hold 3,500-3,700 gallons during a potential overflow. City vacuum trucks – which can hold 2,000-2,500 gallons each – are also now on standby during hard rain events. Neither were necessary on Thursday or Friday, according to Krueger, but staff were on-site “watching it all night long in case it started backing up.” Krueger says an estimated eight-inch drop in lake water levels in recent months has helped alleviate some of the pressure on the downtown system.

City staff are also midway through an assessment of the sewer and stormwater system to identify long-term fixes to prevent recurring flooding, especially downtown. Krueger will appear before city commissioners Monday at their 7pm virtual meeting to give an update on the study. The city will likely need to line several old pipes that are lower than Lake Michigan levels, which make them prone to inundation during hard rain events. “We are looking at Bay Street going west from Oak Street as a potential sewer lining project, or multiple projects,” Krueger says. “We know there’s clay pipe there, which is the old material that leaks and is not very watertight. It’s definitely aged.”

Additional projects could include installing more lift stations downtown, such as near Wadsworth Street, to intercept sewage before it makes it down to the Boardman River area. The goal would be to direct the sewage straight to the city treatment plant and relieve some of the capacity on the line running into town, Krueger says. City staff have also conducted nearly 350 inspections of private properties to look for illegal sump pumps, which can pump groundwater into city pipes and contribute to overflows (residents are prohibited from pumping out flood waters on their property into the city system). Krueger says inspections turned up a limited number of sump pumps, some of which have already been disconnected. Staff will be continuing to monitor the system through spring and return to commissioners with further recommendations and cost estimates for repairs; the city will likely need state and/or federal grant funding assistance to pay for some of the needed projects, Krueger says.

Meanwhile, in Grand Traverse County, a long-awaited project to address flooding issues along Cass Road is finally ready to move forward. Businesses in the Cass Road drain district – including Great Lakes Malting Company and Thomas and Milliken Millwork – experienced significant flooding this week, with overflow from Miller Creek submerging the businesses’ parking lots and flooding into buildings. “When it floods, it’s bad,” says County Drain Commissioner Steve Largent of the recurring issue.

County commissioners Wednesday approved pledging the county’s full faith and credit to up to $2.8 million in bonds to make improvements to the drain district. The price tag includes roughly $1.5 million in construction costs, plus costly upfront engineering work already completed and legal, bond, contingency, and other fees. Work will include installing a stormwater diversion berm and vegetative bypass channel on Miller Creek to prevent flooding, with overflow redirected to an adjacent vacant lot, as well as replacing the railroad crossing at Miller Creek to increase flow capacity and avoid sediment backups. Initial plans to reconstruct a portion of Cass Road with stormwater improvements were left off the project list due to the high expense of the undertaking.

Project costs will be spread out among roughly 500 property owners over a 20-year period as part of a special assessment district, with each owner’s cost dependent on factors like land use type and location within the drain district. Entities including Garfield Township, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Grand Traverse County Road Commission, Grand Traverse County, and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians are significant contributors to the project. Largent told commissioners that once bonding is finalized, construction can begin – potentially as soon as mid-November. The first step would likely be installing the berm to provide some “immediate protection” to Cass Road business owners, Largent said.

Pictured (clockwise from top left): Cedar Street; businesses in the Cass Road drain district; Peninsula Drive; Three Mile/South Airport Road intersection

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