It was a normal day at the office.  I had received an email from a lady asking about the flooding that happens behind her house on a regular basis.  She indicated her husband would be home on a certain day, so I called him and made an appointment.  Upon arriving, I noticed that the stream / ditch behind their house was so small that you could step over it.

A Standard Stream Behind Your House

A standard stream behind your house

I spoke with the husband, and he described how the small stream became a raging monster of water when it rains.  Long story short: is there anything I could do to stop it from flooding so badly?  Could I just make the water go away?

Lick Run Flooded

The small stream, Lick Run (Jeffersonville), during flood stage.

Round 1: floodplains have some serious benefits

In the floodplain management industry, floodplains are considered natural and beneficial.  Flooding is a natural process.  It is supposed to occur.  But why are floodplains useful?

  • They naturally store and convey floodwaters;
  • Help maintain water quality;
  • Recharge groundwater aquifers and naturally regulate flows into rivers and lakes;
  • Support large and diverse populations of plants and animals;
  • Provide historical, scientific, recreational, and economic benefits to communities.

To continue our story…as you may have guessed…the list above did nothing to impress the homeowner.  How did the reasons above make the water vanish?

Round 2: floodplains get changed

Now the discussion turns to what occurs when mankind alters the natural floodplains.  With regards to the environment, altering natural floodplains:

  • Damage or destroy fish and wildlife breeding, nursery, and feeding grounds;
  • Robs downstream habitats of nutrients;
  • Threatens a significant percentage of endangered species.

However, we are not at the homeowner’s house to talk about the environment.  So the discussion typically turns in the direction of change over time and how humans have kind of mucked it up.

Round 3: historically speaking

Usually, the subdivision lots I am visiting were developed in the 1950s to around the year 2000 (a rough assessment).  Or I am at a property that is adjacent to a subdivision constructed around those times.  A standard waterway strategy for years was to develop as much land as possible.  This meant confining the stream channel to a very specific area, which also meant eliminating the floodplain and building as close to the stream as possible.  Hey, who doesn’t want a view of the water?!

Unfortunately, that awesome scenic view can come with some floodplain drawbacks.  With the each segment of the stream channels becoming more constricted each year, the flooding becomes “worse” as time passes.  I hear lots of people tell me that they have lived at that house for 30 years and that the flooding “was not that bad 15 – 20 years ago”.  Of that, I have no doubt.

Round 4: tough answers

Flooding and floodplain issues are not solved by digging the ditch or channel deeper.  This is a regular solution by property owners that I hear every week or two.  It seems to be common sense that a deeper ditch could hold more water.  I wish that helped, but it is not a solution that fixes what they want.

One method is to review the watershed / sub-watershed and see where the drainage is coming from.   Sometimes, I am able to tell people that a certain site will be developed and the water will be re-routed away from them.  Other times, there is not an easy answer.  The City of Jeffersonville has a large Stormwater Master Plan that has numerous projects that are designed to improve water quality and reduce the load of water hammering a particular area.  However, plans like these take a significant amount of time to implement.

The flood finale

So now you are wondering…what did I tell the homeowner?  He was not impressed by the benefits of floodplains, he felt marginally bad for the fish and their destroyed aquatic home, and was apathetic to how humans changed the floodplains.  After a lengthy discussion, I still had not solved his perceived or actual problem.

The answer typically becomes one of education and outreach.   After explaining all those items, I normally have no method of assisting the homeowner; their house was improperly constructed 20 feet away from a stream.  The home should never have been allowed to be built there.

  • Since I know the drainage patterns of the City, I can describe if I think that some of the water could be re-routed, which will alleviate some of the flooding for his backyard;
  • If a structure is taking physical damage, I will suggest options for flood proofing and protection of the structure;
  • I do let people know that we currently have regulations the prohibit future development from encroaching on the floodplain, which would keep their situation from worsening.

It is a difficult conversation, and very few people are super enthusiastic about floodplains after we talk. However, they do understand the problem a little better, and have a more clear picture of how the City is working to keep their issue from becoming worse and (if feasible) what projects / work orders we have upcoming that may decrease the flooding at their property or in their neighborhood.  By being polite and understanding of their concern, I work hard to help them learn about our floodplain and localized drainage projects.  Unfortunately, not every concern can be fixed.

Yep, it was a normal day at the office.