The Great Flood

How past development has affected Kids Creek, what future development may do, and why the Slabtown neighborhood keeps going underwater.

TRAVERSE CITY – The last time Kids Creek overflowed was fall of 2010. Residents in the Kids Creek Commons neighborhood remember it well. They also remember the previous times it flooded. How could they not? It usually happens once or twice a year.

There are stories about 18 inches of water in basements, knee-deep pools in driveways, flooding so deep in yards that one resident says she could jump off her roof into the water. Another time, someone even caught a fish with his bare hands.

Picture Munson Hospital at the corner of Elmwood and Sixth Street and the section of Kids Creek that meanders along its border. If the Kids Creek watershed has a valley, this area is it.

Once a floodplain, always a floodplain

But when those flash flood rains come and stick around for a couple of hours, residents directly west of Munson Hospital – the Kids Creek neighborhood – worry about their backyards and basements. Then, they run out to the drains in the alley with a shovel and try to clear them of storm debris to keep the water at bay. If city workers aren't already there, they show up soon, too.

This isn't a new problem. The area where Munson Hospital now sits would flood after a heavy rain more than 200 years ago. One local history book notes: "Time and again the Creek flooded in its past – old photographs from the 1890s and before demonstrate the power of this small tributary of the Boardman River." (Source: Glimpses of Grand Traverse History Past)

Kids Creek experiences "severe changes in flow, called flashiness, due to runoff during storms, according to The Watershed Center. This causes occasional significant flooding in "the valley."

What has changed over the century, however, is the proliferation of impervious surfaces: roofs, parking lots and the like. The runoff has to find new (and sometimes unwelcome) places to go.

"It certainly hasn't gotten better because of development to the west (of Munson, outside of city limits)," says Steve Tongue, vice president facilities and plant engineering at Munson.

Add in an ever-expanding health care facility, and it's a battle of man vs. water – and water usually always wins in the end.

Kids Creek and related flood plain issues are among the concerns being reviewed by Munson's facilities planning team. Munson's next expansion – a 100-bed tower – takes it north, the direction the city's master plan guides them, according to Tongue.

Munson representatives met with its residential neighbors twice this past winter. "We continue to work to mitigate effects," he adds. "But we can't mitigate effects upstream or downstream."

The Kids Creek Commons Neighborhood Association has not taken a formal stance on the flooding issue, but residents have expressed their concern about the impact of future developments at the health care complex, says association president Chris Lange.

Robert Becker, Traverse City Department of Public Services Street Supervisor, says the goal is to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to storm runoff overwhelming the creek's banks. He lists street sweeping as a critical component of prevention, making sure the street drains are clear. Also, sand is regularly sucked from catch basins, he adds.

Becker is in just his second year as street supervisor, but says there is a lot of collaborative effort between the city, the Grand Traverse Conservation District, and Munson to deal with the flood issue.

Tongue says recently built hospital parking lots have underground retention tanks for runoff. Also, there is an oil/grit separator in the main parking where the sediment is separated from the water before being discharged into the creek. And constructing parking structures rather than parking lots is a priority.

"If we had a clean slate, we would do drainage differently," says Sarah U'ren of The Watershed Center. "We can retro-fit, do better storm controls. But sometimes you have to work with what you have." A critical piece of future development is the handling of all storm water on site, adds U'Ren.

Bringing the trout back

Kids Creek could be a superb trout stream, but storm water runoff, stream bank erosion and nutrient deposits from lawns have landed it on Michigan's Impaired Waters list. But efforts are underway to change that.

Munson, along with the Grand Traverse Conservation District (GTCD) and The Watershed Center, have created an "urban buffer design" for the section of creek that runs from the hospital's main entrance on Sixth Street to its Emergency Entrance on Elmwood. The design includes native plantings, fish habitat structures and other improvements to help bring the fish and other aquatic habitat back. The stream has also been narrowed, which allows it to better handle baseflow (not attributable to runoff) and increases the flood conveyance plain.

"It's about more than just storm water conveyance," says Steve Largent of the GTCD "It's also about the health of the creek."

Munson is also working with neighbors who have the creek running through their property on how to restore its banks to reduce further erosion and sediment building up in the creek. BN