Flat Creek flood fight

By Jim Stanford on January 21, 2014

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An excavator clears ice from rocks in Flat Creek on Saturday. By Sunday, five trackhoes were working in the creek to alleviate flooding.

Flooding caused by ice formation along Flat Creek came to a head this weekend, and the town again had to assist homeowners in breaking up the ice.

After being contacted by constituents in the neighborhood, I went out there with Mayor Mark Barron on Saturday to survey the flooding, ice buildup and efforts by residents to protect their property. The flooding affected homes from Stacy Lane to Crabtree Lane and was some of the worst people had ever seen.

In a matter of hours Friday, I’m told, the level of the water and ice rose about 3 feet. This came after I tried to walk the pathway behind the post office Thursday and found it impassable.

Putting heavy equipment into the creek to break up the ice is not a delicate operation, despite the operators’ best efforts. The ice was 3 feet thick or more, and anchored to the stream bottom in places. For every trackhoe breaking it up, two more were needed to scoop up the loose ice floating downstream, else a jam could form and cause even worse flooding.

This is not a long-term solution, nor are the thaw wells the town has utilized to pump warmer groundwater into the creek to keep ice from forming. Besides being of limited effectiveness, in one winter these thaw wells pumped more than 300 million gallons of water from the aquifer into Flat Creek.

Obviously, this is yet another example of why it’s not a good idea to build in a floodplain. Once upon a time, this area would have been a beaver pond. Streams are dynamic and move around. But that’s all, um, water under the bridge.

Residents are in the process of forming a watershed district to work on solving the problem themselves. In the coming weeks the town will be gathering stakeholders, along with the Teton Conservation District, to try to come up with a better strategy.

Anyone wishing to access the Garaman Pathway better bring skates.

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Posted under Environment, Politics, Town Government

13 Comments so far

  1. Andy January 22, 2014 1:27 am

    It’s great to see the stream handled with such delicacy.

  2. Brad January 22, 2014 8:36 am

    Jim, not to question what you wrote here, but I’m trying to get my brain wrapped around that amount of water in such a short amount of time. 300 MILLION gallons? Any chance at all the meters are malfunctioning? How long have the thaw wells been in place as a non-solution?

    Excellent point about flood plains and wetlands in particular in this valley. Developers have never seen these issues as obstacles, merely pesky conditions to be altered with the collusion of municipal authority.

    BTW, thanks for using your forum to inform the public on these things.

  3. Jim Stanford January 22, 2014 1:26 pm

    Yes, 322 million gallons over an entire winter. I checked with our town manager and engineer before posting. The thaw wells were built around 2000. The outflow pipes are pretty large — at least 12 inches in diameter in Karns Meadow. They are gushers.

    A short distance from where all this work was going on Saturday, a friend found an ice-free hole and caught a pretty nice cutthroat.

    While everyone seems to have a theory about the creek, some residents have postulated that decades of runoff from town streets, especially dirt roads like on Saddle Butte, have created a hard crust on the creek bottom impermeable for ground water. That causes the creek to be too cold in winter (prone to freezing) and hot in summer, to the detriment of insects and homeowners as well. Their proposed solution might be to drill down through the crust in places, in essence creating springs. This sounds plausible to me, but who knows if it could cause other problems.

    Bottom line, we need good science to guide policy.

  4. joe January 22, 2014 3:39 pm

    what is the history of Flat Creek freezing?

  5. rhino January 22, 2014 8:07 pm

    Not sure where i heard it, but is it true that there was no ice problems after the thaw wells were installed, until the town just decided it was ‘a waste’ of water to run them and stopped last year?

    You’re right, it needs science and transparency. Who determined it was a ‘waste’ to run the wells? Was there a council meeting where this was discussed and decided? Or did the town just make an executive decision, the impacts on the homeowners be damned?

    If there is one thing this whole debacle shows, it’s that a lack of information always breeds mis-information.

  6. Andy January 22, 2014 8:30 pm

    Any idea what’s with the settling ponds at the eastern end of Karns Meadow? In the two(?) years since they were put in, I have yet to see any significant, or even noticeable, water in them.

    Does the Refuge stretch suffer from anchor ice? How about the South Park feedground water?

    There has to be a better solution than pumping 300 million gallons of our water supply into the creek, and then when that fails to alleviate the situation bring in excavators that destroy the stream’s bed and banks.

    Maybe it’s time for levees on little ol’ Flat Creek…

  7. Aaron January 22, 2014 10:40 pm

    Andy is right, that huge Flat Creek improvement project at Karns Meadow seems to be a huge waste. They have yet to use that to it’s advertised potential. The storm drain at E Hansen is supposed to be redirected into the settling ponds, which is now pointless since the town and WYDOT just drained all of Broadway into the creek at the bridge. Seems that those ponds could be used to redirect water and mitigate flooding downstream. Also it’s time to take down that fence and give the land back to the people.

  8. joe January 23, 2014 10:56 am

    ground water doesn’t flow into Flat Creek in the winter because the water table is a lot lower in the winter. Do what we do on the west bank, have teton village water and sewer inject up to a million gals. of effluent a day just forty feet down into a gravelly aquifer that is flowing upwards.

  9. Jim Stanford January 23, 2014 12:57 pm

    Like I said, everyone seems to have a theory. Let’s see if I can address these questions in the order they came in.

    First, regarding the history, I asked fisherman and former Town Councilman Paul Bruun about it over the weekend, and Paul said the creek has been flooding, up and down, as long as anyone can remember. I’m told the town has a letter from Mayor Ralph Gill in the 1970s advising a creekside developer he would be on his own to fight floods. Farther downstream, the Lockhart-Gill family has been dealing with flooding on their ranch for several generations.

    Rhino, people do say the thaw wells help in places, but other folks say it’s better for their property when the wells are turned off. Increasing the flow can raise the water and ice level in some stretches, especially because the warmer groundwater quickly cools as it is absorbed into the creek. Hence the wells are said to be effective only for about 1,000 feet. There was never a vote to turn off wells, but prior to last winter (and my joining the council) a policy decision was made to let landowners fend for themselves, after the town was handed a bill for damage and denied access by some property owners. Also consider: Is it fair for all town residents to pay for operation of these wells and draining of the aquifer, especially given the limited effectiveness?

    As for the settling ponds in Karns Meadow, Andy, I checked with the town engineer, and they are working as intended. A “monstrous success” in water quality circles, I’m told. The reason you don’t see much water most of the time is because these ponds are designed to deal with surges of runoff, such as a rapid melting of the piles of snow stored at the rodeo grounds or a heavy thunderstorm. The storm drains you see on streets from Snow King Avenue to Pearl Avenue and east to Redmond Street all are funneled into these ponds in the meadow, and a tremendous amount of sediment and potential pollution is being caught rather than flowing right into the creek.

    The fences are going to come down this spring. Some of them were erected to protect young willows from being eaten by deer. Once they are large enough, wildlife can feed.

    The refuge stretch of Flat Creek likely has enough springs that it does not freeze as much as the portion through town. Same down in lower South Park, from what I gather.

    Again, anyone with a theory or concern is welcome to attend a public meeting about the creek at 5 p.m. Jan. 28 at Town Hall. Teton Conservation District will participate.

    I am not a hydrologist or geologist, so I’m asking a lot of questions just like many of you. Any action the town has taken on Flat Creek, including building weirs/riffles and thaw wells, was guided by a USGS study done in the late 1990s. The conservation district and groups like Trout Unlimited were involved. I’m going to read the USGS report in advance of Tuesday’s meeting and will make a copy available online, if possible.

  10. Boat 1 Retired January 23, 2014 1:32 pm

    Jim – great job getting out in front of this topic. Hopefully town and affected landowners can get together and come up with a plan to protect private property and preserve public resources.

  11. Andy January 23, 2014 9:42 pm

    Thanks for the information, Jim!

  12. Rhino January 23, 2014 10:21 pm

    Thanks for hitting this head-on Jim!

  13. Scott January 28, 2014 12:29 pm

    Thanks for all the investigation on this issue, Jim.

    I support the Town’s decision to largely stay out of this issue. If, as Paul Bruun said, flooding has been a well-known problem for decades, it should be dealt with by the homeowners and businesses choosing to buy / rent in the floodplain. Mike Halpin’s plan to create a special taxing district to manage the issue makes compete sense. Otherwise, this situation seems similar to people who build beach homes on barrier islands and then want government support when storms take the dunes away.

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