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Containing The Water

June 11, 2012, 10:00 PM by Shawn Neisteadt

Containing The Water

It is a major project in Sioux Falls costing tens of millions of dollars.  It's controversial and been talked about for nearly two decades.  No, it’s not the events center.  Since 1996, crews have been working on the levee system protecting Sioux Falls from a major flood along the Big Sioux River.

The rolling water of the Big Sioux River was the lifeblood of the city in its early years and is the city's namesake. But from time to time, that water rises and can threaten modern-day Sioux Falls.  That's where the system of levees comes in.  They line the river and their job is to keep the water contained during a flood.

"It is good to be nearing the end.  This has been a substantial project," Public Work Director Mark Cotter said.

With a price tag of $55 million for the city, upgrades to the levee system have been ongoing since 1996.  That work is now in the home stretch. Final touches are happening near 60th Street North.  Those involved with the project say it's moving smoothly now for many reasons.

"First and foremost, the adjacent property owners.  They've been willing to allow us to have easements next to their property so we can not only protect them, but protect a large area of the city," Cotter said.

Controversy brewed in the early 2000s when the project would have stretched to nearly 2020 with the $2 million yearly payments from the federal government.  The city council for Sioux Falls allowed for the city to prepay that portion and speed up the work.  But still, it's been costly and time consuming.

"The elements like the 41st Street bridge.  We brought it in under accelerated means so we could minimize the impact to the driving public and also to get the work done and in a superior quality, so that alone was in that $7 million range," Cotter said.

The project also got swept into controversy in 2009 when FEMA updated the flood map for Sioux Falls.  The old plan from 1982 had 800 properties in the flood plain.  The new map propelled that number to more 2,000.  That required home and business owners to buy flood insurance until the levee work is complete. The project also includes a bigger dam at the diversion channel, and the city can now ensure that Skunk Creek doesn't backup the Big Sioux, thanks to a new structure where the creek enters the river.

"The flood protection now gets us to that standard and certainly reduces the risk on Sioux Falls," Cotter said.

But just because you can see the levees, doesn't mean they count.  At some point late this year, or early next year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have to come in and inspect the work.  At that point, the official flood map can be updated.

"You know, once it is complete, it is really going to open things up for us again.  Over the last couple of years, really since September of 2009, there have been some challenges and obstacles for building in the flood plain," Jeff Schmidt of Sioux Falls City Planning said.

Schmidt says hardly a day goes by without him having to answer questions about the project.  He says certification of the work will no doubt spur development in Sioux Falls.  That's because, right now, if a homeowner or business in the flood zone wants to remodel, they would have to rebuild five to seven feet higher, as if the levees don't exist.

"I mean, think about places at 41st and Louise where they'd have to build their properties up here, and 41st and Louise is down here.  It just doesn't work.  So they'll ask when can I build?  Once the levees have been completed," Schmidt said.

But city leaders say the biggest benefit will be for those 1,600 property owners who will be removed from the flood plain and will no longer be forced into buying flood insurance.

"That's going to be a real benefit for people that maybe are on a fixed income right now or don't have that income to afford.  By the end of this year and over the next couple of years, they will have the ability and not have to pay that addition insurance cost.  That will really be a benefit to them," Schmidt said.

And overall, the city will have a taller and stronger line of defense from the sometimes unpredictable water.

The Big Sioux River has flooded less than 20 times over the last 130 years.  The levee work was approved by Congress in the 1990s and without the updates, Sioux Falls would not be eligible for federal disaster assistance in the event of a major flood.

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