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Flood relief finally comes to Stevenson's Creek

Stevenson's Creek flows as it always has. It is the people beside it who have changed.

Some have moved or retired. Others have advanced toward middle age. Preschoolers have become teens. Grandchildren have been born.

It has been that long since residents along the creek first pleaded with the city in 1987 and 1988 to do something about flooding from the stream. The complaints followed two strong storms that soaked homes and cars.

But last week, after years of delay, the City Commission approved a $4.1-million project to complete work on the creek and provide some long-awaited flood relief to a sprawling residential area southeast of downtown.

Nearly 60 properties will be affected directly. Officials also hope flood insurance rates for many more homeowners will go down as a result of the project.

Work is expected to begin in late August and last for about a year.

A number of factors delayed the project, which has come in two phases. The first phase, northwest of Cleveland Street, was completed about four years ago.

The second phase has been stalled since 1990 while city engineers tried to come up with an affordable design that would satisfy environmental groups that challenged the city's original plans for the creek.

The original plans called for "hard-lining" some sections with concrete, much like the first phase. That would have improved the flow of the creek but, to some, it was an aesthetic and environmental disaster.

Hard-lining banks can make a creek look more like a storm sewer.

Environmentalists say it also ruins habitats and strips away plants that help filter out pollutants. Tidal tributaries such as Stevenson's Creek are important breeding grounds for fish.

Terry Jennings, one of the city's top engineers, said the project has been "environmentally softened."

"Our goal," said his boss, City Engineer Rich Baier, "is to try to restore some of the city, as much as possible, to a natural state."

The second phase will tame 6 square miles of creek, from Pierce Street to the intersection of Jeffords Street and Hillcrest Avenue.

From Pierce to Jeffords, workers will add another tier to the banks _ a sloping, grass plain that will trap and hold rising water before it invades private property.

The banks will be steeper behind several homes on the north side of Jeffords. Along that stretch, workers will erect "gabions," walls made of wire baskets filled with rocks.

Jennings said gabions are environmentally friendly and easy to maintain.

The spaces between the rocks allow groundwater to flow into the creek. They also fill with soil, allowing plants to grow. Thousands of tiny crevices provide living space for animals.

Gabions are about the only structure the state will approve for steep banks, Jennings said.

Other features of the project include new culverts under Druid Road; at Jeffords and Hillcrest; and under Pierce, Court and Franklin streets.

A pond will be created at Jeffords and Hillcrest and sediment will be removed from a portion of the creek known as Linn Lake, between Druid and Jeffords.

According to Jennings, the lake "will look and feel more like a lake than it has for many years."

The city also is planning two "weir structures" under Court Street and Druid Road. The structures block the flow of the creek to a certain level. Baier said this allows ponds to form and will help prevent the erosion of banks during a hard rain.

Joe Devlin, a property owner who soon will see gabions from his back yard, said he will miss the spawning fish and otters who frequented his part of the creek. But he likes the idea that the creek will be cleaned up.

Devlin said his property has never flooded. He suspects the project will relieve flooding for homeowners to the south, who sit upstream.

"I've been very much in favor it," he said. "I think it'll be a good asset for the city."

Jennings said the improvement is designed to prevent floods caused by 24-hour storms _ the kind of storms that statistically come along every 25 years and can dump as much as 9 inches of rain.

But he cautioned that it won't hold back waters in more serious storms.

The project will progress upstream in small phases, starting at Pierce Street, Jennings said. It also will cause traffic problems when workers start tearing up Court Street to install culverts.

When the project is complete next year, it will have shrunk the area that is now vulnerable to flooding. Along some stretches, the shrinkage will be by as much as two blocks. In others, only a few feet.

As a final step, city officials will ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to adjust its flood maps, Jennings said, "and all of these folks adjacent to the creek should receive reduced insurance premiums."