A season of high water leads to more than a decade of neighborhood transformation in Dubuque.
For years, Dubuque’s terrain held development in check. The City started at the edge of the Mississippi River, grew across a wide floodplain to the foot of rising bluffs, and later sprawled westward from the upper reaches of those bluffs. Water was always an issue because of this location, but booming growth in the 1990s and accompanying hard surfaced streets, rooftops, and drainage tile contributed to a disaster in the city’s Bee Branch Creek area in 1999.
As tornado sirens roared outside, Bee Branch Creek watershed residents hunkered down in basements, watching water rise around them to floor joists and past electric boxes. “It was evacuate the tornado shelter or drown,” said one resident.
Deron Muehring was a new storm water engineer for the City when those people emerged from basements and started to put life back together. The City was already in the process of developing a storm water management plan because of increasing complaints. But this major June rainstorm revealed big issues to a lot of people, and it shifted the City’s focus.
“Hundreds of people were impacted that year,” says Muehring. “We held a large meeting in a neighborhood park. Presidential Disaster was declared. We needed to get information to people. They were upset, and on a broad scale the city realized, ‘Hey, this is an issue. We need to deal with it.’
“So, as engineers we thought, ‘We’re going to solve these peoples’ problems.’ We did a study and shared a plan with the neighborhood, which is one of Dubuque’s oldest and most challenged. It focused on reducing flooding with traditional engineering methods, but would cost a lot of money and eliminate a lot of homes.
“The neighbors were irate, and we got a lot of pushback. It was trial by fire.
“That year we learned the hard way to listen and communicate first. Without good communication and facts to create common ground, people were left to their own imaginations.”
What came about because of what Mr. Muehring and other engineers learned that year was a successful planning process led by citizens, supported by successive City Councils, and championed by a community-oriented mayor.
In 2002, the Mayor and City Council created an ad hoc, 30-member citizen committee to develop a vision for reducing storm water impacts in the Bee Branch Creek neighborhood. They also requested and later approved a Drainage Basin Master Plan.
Residents of Dubuque’s North End did not want a trapezoidal concrete ditch dividing their neighborhood. So as participants in the design process and aided by facts from engineers and planners, they decided to bring the creek back from underground, where it had been flowing through a brick lined storm sewer since 1910. In the new plan, one creek moved as much water as five storm sewers big enough to drive a Jeep through, and it provided beauty and recreational opportunities as well.
A landscape designer helped them visualize the design as it evolved.
The committee recommended a storm water utility to help pay for this change, and it was voted into reality by the Council in 2003.
Now, more than a decade later, neighbors enjoy a beautiful park, dry basements, and alleys with permeable paving to further reduce runoff. An amphitheater, additional park land, and more creek access go in this year.
“The social aspects of stewardship are important,” says Laura Carstens, Dubuque’s planning services manager. “This project shows how engineers need to think about community transition. It’s important to to see that managing storm water is not always an engineering solution. ‘This is the way I’ve always done it!’ doesn’t hold up. If it didn’t work for 17 previous floods, why will it work now?’ We have to think holistically and sustainably.”
“Our job,” Muehring adds, “is helping people understand the dynamics of what they’re asking for.
“What’s satisfying is that the community rallied around the project despite the fact that our initial approach was like throwing cold water in their faces,” says Muehring.“The message was, ‘Not in my back yard!’ Now, citizens are completely positive about the solutions the community has created.”