In Depth: MSD Considering Buyouts To Prevent Floods

by Gabe Bullard on October 7, 2009

On August 4th, six inches of rain fell on parts of Louisville in about 90 minutes. The freak storm caused a flood disaster, especially in the western and southwestern sections of the city. In those flood-prone areas, the city’s combined sewer system could not handle the massive amounts of water entering drains. Now Metro Sewer District officials are looking for ways to allow more water into the ground instead of into the sewer.

Three weeks after the flood, west Louisville resident Felicia Gardner told a Metro Council committee that what happened on August 4th was a more severe episode of the flooding that happens during every hard rainfall.

“If any of this occurred in the east end on a daily basis, you all would be doing something about it,” she said. “You know it, I know it, we all know it. Let’s keep it real.”

The east end may not flood as often, but Metro Government’s options are limited when it comes to keeping neighborhoods dry. The combined sewer system underneath much of the city handles both storm runoff and waste water. Even though it’s one of the largest combined sewers in the world, it’s out of date. Parts of it were built more than a century ago, when there wasn’t much to prevent water from soaking into the ground instead of draining into the sewer.

“No one in the 30s ever envisioned the amount of build-out that we see today,” says Metro Sewer District director Bud Schardein.

The ground over the combined sewer was covered with houses and driveways so gradually over the years that Schardein says MSD didn’t realize a drainage problem was being created as it granted building permits. He says it’s financially and logistically unfeasible to rebuild the sewer, so other steps have to be taken to reduce the amount of water going into the sewer. That could mean using a federal grant to buy flood-prone homes in west and southwest Louisville and destroy them, thereby freeing up more ground to absorb rainwater.

“Even with very, very large combined sewers already in the ground, just because of the elevation of those properties or those neighborhoods, a very heavy rain will continue to inundate the areas,” he says.

“If the water had somewhere else to go, that would alleviate the pressure enormously,” says Rose George, author of The Big Necessity, a book about waste management. She says Louisville isn’t unique: all over the world, permeable ground has been paved over, leading to flood-prone neighborhoods.

“Creating more permeable ground is probably the best solution we have the moment because it simply gives the water somewhere else to go,” she says. “And therefore it doesn’t go down in the sewers and it doesn’t overload the sewers and you don’t have floods.”

Many of the residents that might be bought out are represented by Metro Councilwoman Judy Green.

“They get flooded frequently in a heavy rain,” says Green. “So I think that they are ready to go on and look for higher ground.”

Green says her constituents are tired of flooding, but there may be a problem with buyouts.

“Over at 23rd and Maple, where the houses are shotgun-type houses probably worth 15 thousand dollars, how are you going to realistically move to a new place or a new home for that amount?” she says.

The funding for buyouts isn’t yet secured and Schardein says he won’t try to force anyone to leave. In the meantime, MSD is installing backflow prevention valves in homes and encouraging property owners to build water-absorbing rain gardens at their own expense. Both can help prevent flooding, but Schardein says the water is always going to need someplace to go.

And to keep citizens informed of their options, Councilwoman Green expects the ad-hoc flood committee that she co-chairs to pass a resolution summarizing the causes of the flood and the city’s response in the aftermath.

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