Flood control has costs

Jon Jaehnig/For the Gazette Melanie Kueber Watkins is an associate research professor in Michigan Technological University's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, and is a member of the Portage Township Planning Commission.

HOUGHTON — The Carnegie Museum presented the first talk of this year’s Natural History Seminar Series, in cooperation with the Keweenaw Land Trust. The event was scheduled to take place in the Museum’s Community Room but seats quickly filled and overflow seating was arranged on the main floor.

“Each year we center on a different kind of topic, and this year’s series is about the flood,” Nelson said in introducing the speaker, Melanie Kueber Watkins.

Nelson was referencing the Father’s Day flood last year damaged homes, destroyed streets, polluted rivers and killed one person.

While many of the streets have been repaired, much of the damage remains evident and the flood remains a common topic of conversation and debate.

Kueber Watkins is a research professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Michigan Technological University.

She is also a member of the Portage Township Planning Commission and worked with an engineering company doing flood preparation and damage assessment prior to working at Tech. Much of her presentation, titled “Being Prepared has a Cost: Tools to Make Informed Decisions about Storm Water Management,” drew on that experience.

Kueber Watkins focused on impervious surfaces as a leading cause of the flood. Impervious surfaces such as paved roads and parking lots prevent rainwater from absorbing into the ground, leading to standing water and runoff.

“When we add impervious area, we know that the runoff happens a lot faster, and it increases the volumes,” said Kueber Watkins. “We know that it causes erosion. We know that it causes flooding. Another thing we know it causes, especially when we saw the Portage (Canal) after the flood was pollution.”

To illustrate, Kueber Watkins showed a photo of Houghton in 1975 and another of Houghton in 2001, showing a huge decrease in tree coverage and a huge increase in roads, parking areas and buildings.

Kueber Watkins focused on how planners and engineers can incorporate stormwater management into development. Sewers, storm channels and culverts, retention tanks and bio

retention are all methods of controlling stormwater.

Ponds have historically been popular, but the trend is toward bio-retention in places like wetlands, which contain more permeable materials and plant life to collect water.

Some method of stormwater management is required for new developments by area ordinances. Houghton’s was passed in 2015 and so had a limited impact by the time of 2018’s flood.

Portage Township is in the process of introducing further zoning ordinances to promote stormwater management following the flood, she said.

The next talk in the series is Feb. 19 at the Carnegie Museum. Former Houghton city manager Scott MacInnes will discuss the Father’s Day flood, as well as floods that occurred in the area in 1912 and 1978.