Every time it rains, Jean Dutcher feels like she’s being robbed.
Her property on Canterbury Lane in Old West Lawrence backs up to a ravine with a small creek. During heavy rains, the creek swells with stormwater that surges from a 48-inch corrugated pipe, three 12-inch pipes and two concrete spillways that feed off neighboring parking lots. The speed of the water has eroded her land.
Dutcher’s worried that her back porch, which once stood a safe distance from the banks of the ravine, is in danger of sliding into the creek in a big storm. She said she started asking the city of Lawrence three years ago for help to fix the problem, so far to no avail.
Dutcher’s not the only one concerned about the possible impact of the inevitable spring rains. Matt Bond, the city’s stormwater engineer, said he feels for Dutcher but he’s more concerned about runoff and flooding problems in other areas around Lawrence.
“(Dutcher’s) losing land back there. I don’t disagree with that because some of the bank is sloughing off into the creek. But you try and get the most bang out of your buck. If I’m going to spend $10,000 can I help 10 people or can I help one?” Bond said.
At the top of Bond’s list is the intersection at 23rd Street and Ousdahl Road, which he said has been plagued by chronic flooding for years. Bond equates trying to navigate the intersection’s floodwaters with driving through a bathtub, and joked that it takes a German U-boat to get through.
His list of other high priority areas includes, but isn’t limited to:
• 21st Street and Naismith Drive.
• 19th Street and Maple Lane.
• Ninth Street and Holiday Drive.
• 17th and Alabama streets. Residents near there have sent Bond photos of their neighbors canoeing down the street, in the hopes of gaining aid or attention to the problem.
Problems not new
Some of those areas were included in a 1996 city master plan of stormwater improvement needs. Of the 41 problem sites the plan identified, 19 have been addressed. Eleven of the original 41 were deemed high priority, seven of which have been taken care of, Bond said.
He said he would not even venture a guess as to the cost of the needed fixes, except to say it would cost many millions of dollars the city does not have.
As in many communities, some of Lawrence’s stormwater problems are manmade while others are more the result of topography. Often they’re caused by both.
The elevation of Mount Oread, the home of Kansas University, for example, is a major contributor to stormwater runoff in Lawrence. When water moves on concrete, especially down steep grades, such as the roads and walkways leading to and from campus, it moves far quicker and has a much higher potential for erosion than if it were to come off natural terrain.
While most households pay $4 a month on their utility bills for stormwater management, KU pays $17,000 a month, Bond said. In part, this is to help deal with the massive amounts of water that move at extremely fast speeds down Mount Oread.
Michael J. Russell, director of the Department of Environmental Health and Safety at KU, said that KU has adopted a good citizen attitude toward stormwater and works closely with the city to coordinate stormwater drainage plans.
He said KU uses detention areas such as Potter Lake to hold stormwater runoff. It also uses other techniques that are considered environmentally sound. KU’s recreation center, for example, has attempted to harvest stormwater for use in landscaping, and the Park & Ride lot near 23rd and Iowa streets uses bioswales to slow and filter stormwater.
Outdated is the thinking that it’s best to just pipe water away from lowlands as quickly as possible. Better solutions often include slowing the runoff to ensure it doesn’t strip away surrounding land and providing natural filters such as berms to trap pollutants before they enter waterways such as the Kansas River.
Hilary Noonan, a landscape designer with a focus on sustainability and urban design, has used a variety of techniques to stem runoff, including rain gardens. She’s said she’s currently installing one for a park near the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center in Kansas City, Mo. The rain garden functions as a play area for children while also slowing and purifying the rainwater that runs though it.
Pervious pavement is another option that allows water to seep through the concrete into the soil, resulting in significantly less runoff. While it requires maintenance over time, it’s a powerful tool to help decrease erosion.
However, many of these solutions can be costly and are not practical for average people attempting to deal with stormwater issues. For managing the effects of routine residential runoff, Bond suggests using rain barrels to collect stormwater from downspouts; the water can then be used on the lawn or garden. Rain barrels slow water coming off roofs, help save on water bills and cost about $35 to make, he said.
For Dutcher, the fixes will be neither cheap nor easy.
“Jean’s property is exactly one where I wish we could get over there and get something done a little faster,” Bond said. “I don’t know whether that means everyone pays a dollar more on their stormwater utility but now is not the time to do that, not in today’s economic climate. You’ve got to make do with what you’ve got.”
Bond recalls a similar situation in which he wanted to help an individual but had to focus on what he and others viewed as higher priority.
“When I first started as homeowner engineer in 2006 I spoke to a gentleman over in West Lawrence about something he needed to be done. It was ice on the sidewalk and groundwater coming up and making a real mess for pedestrians. I wanted to get over there sooner but we only got it done last summer.”