Traverse City News and Events

High Water Damages Could Top $1M In TC; City Eyes Repair Projects, State Funding

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 12, 2020

Record high water levels have inflicted nearly $1 million in damages in Traverse City, according to city staff estimates – a figure that is likely to climb in the months ahead. Traverse City could join other communities across Michigan in seeking state funding to offset repair costs, with staff cautioning that Traverse City will likely need to prepare for a future in which high levels are a recurring challenge.

Staff presented city commissioners Monday with a map of affected areas throughout city limits that have sustained damages or required repairs as a result of high water levels in 2019. Those levels have continued into 2020, with Lake Michigan and Lake Huron both setting new record high January levels, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. With wetter-than-usual conditions persisting, the Army Corps has predicted the trend will continue in the months ahead, potentially leading to a worse 2020 than 2019.

Staff identified nearly 50 sites in the city affected by the rising waters, ranging from flooded boardwalks and parking lots to submerged lighting and signage to eroded shorelines and roadways. Director of Public Services Frank Dituri said staff attempted to calculate a rough cost for each project and its required repairs, calling the nearly $1 million total figure a “snapshot” of damages. But he warned that pinpointing the city’s true costs will require more detailed analysis and engineering estimates – and could rise as the city continues to incur more damages.

“Let’s just find all the problems we can find, assign some kind of value on it so that we can be part of a team that works with the state to get state and/or federal dollars to come this way,” Dituri explained of the city’s approach to creating an initial list of impacts. “The actual projects, they really haven’t been identified at a level where you could suitably understand the repairs or the cost of the repairs.”

City Manager Marty Colburn noted that Governor Gretchen Whitmer has proposed allocating $40 million in her next budget to help communities deal with climate resiliency projects, such as addressing the impacts of high water levels and shoreline erosion. The city will focus on any short-term solutions it can on its own, Colburn said – with commissioners likely to consider repair projects as part of their budget process this spring – but also hopes to seek state relief, possibly by declaring a state of emergency through Grand Traverse County. Colburn said citywide damage was extensive enough that it was not realistic to expect that everything will be fixed in the immediate future.

“We expect it to go higher,” he said. “The reality is that much of it’s probably going to continue to be damaged. But I think there’s some things we can do to mitigate the damage. That’s how we’re going to be approaching some of this.”

One potential project being studied by staff for this summer is finding a way to make the Murchie Bridge underpass usable by pedestrians and cyclists again. The pathway under the Grandview Parkway bridge has been perpetually flooded, cutting off a key TART Trail connector. Director of Municipal Utilities Art Krueger said the city was looking at installing a temporary walkway over the existing path at an elevated height: one that would mirror the path’s route and could be removed in the future if water levels recede. The city could either use a less expensive material like wood that would be more labor-intensive to install, or use a more expensive material – like modular plastic docking – that would be cheaper on the labor side to install and remove. “We are thinking hard about it and trying to come up with a cost-effective solution to keep that walkway usable,” Krueger said.

City staff have also already spent an estimated $9,000 to address flooding at East Bay Park. A new pipe installed at the park can pump 250 gallons a minute, reducing the risk that a nearby residential cul-de-sac will flood and potentially damage private properties. Staff also expressed concern about shoreline erosion issues near East Shore Road, which are impacting private property now but could eventually threaten the city’s right-of-way and roadbed. City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht said she was studying the city’s legal rights to intervene on private property to prevent the erosion from reaching that point, saying the city could try to work collaboratively with private property owners, the Army Corps, and Michigan’s Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE) department to address the issue. “We’re going to have to take it on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

The city’s initial list of damages doesn’t include two major projects that will likely require significant investment to repair: the city’s harbor master building at Clinch Park, which is experiencing building cracking and potential electrical issues from high waters, and the undermining of the Boardman River wall running from Union Street to Park Street. Colburn said there are “some significant issues potentially going on with those properties…it’s going to take much more in-depth determinations by engineers to understand some of the implications and the costs of we need to repair that.”

Commissioners including Tim Werner and Brian McGillivary asked staff Monday if there were longer-term solutions the city could be looking at for the affected sites, instead of just temporary fixes. Dituri said there was no “simple answer” to the challenges posed by rising waters, noting Traverse City was largely built to accommodate lower water levels. “We’re at the mercy of infrastructure that was built under different conditions,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice instead of putting band-aids on things, we actually looked far enough forward to change the way the infrastructure’s put in place?” Dituri cited as an example that instead of continuing to make expensive repairs to a shoreline road, the city could consider moving the road further away from the water. Solutions like those could be best for the city long-term, Dituri said, but come with obvious logistical and cost implications. “I think that’s the thought process that you kind of have to get through if you’re going to look for the long-range fix to these things,” he said.

Mayor Jim Carruthers said there would likely be no easy path forward, with many other Michigan municipalities facing the same obstacles. “This is a challenge for us, it’s a challenge for most shoreline communities,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of people fighting for these (state) dollars as well. It’s something we’re going to have consider in our budgeting process…these are things that are out of our control that we have to deal with.”

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