After the Flood

Residents square off over “the 100-year flood”


It’s not every day that an interesting philosophical debate wells up from a municipal storm drain.

But that was the case at Monday night’s public hearing in City Council on a proposed Special Improvement District (SID) that the city wants to establish to fund Phase II of the South Missoula Storm Drain Project. If approved, this $4.4 million public works project would attempt to correct the problem of periodic flooding in the Pattee Creek, South Hills and Farviews areas, as occurred in 1980 (the so-called “100-year event”) when heavy rainstorms and spring runoff caused extensive property damage from Higgins to Reserve. At issue is the question of who bears the responsibility for the problem, who benefits from the improvements, and ultimately who shoulders the burden to pay for it.

By geological reckoning, we are all relative newcomers to the Missoula Valley, and thus the “responsibility” for flooding is simultaneously on none of us and all of us. The Pattee Creek and Farviews drainage starts in the mountains east of Missoula, flows down the hillsides, into the valley and winds its way through a series of culverts and drainage ditches to the Clark Fork River. The drainage basin above Pattee Canyon includes about 6,000 acres of forested canyonland that can produce upward of 200 cubic feet per second (cfs) of runoff down Pattee Creek. Likewise, the Farviews drainage basin includes about 1,800 acres with a potential runoff of more than 100 cfs. (To put the problem into perspective, the winter floods of 1996-97 produced roughly 30 cfs.)

As Missoula has grown, so too has the likelihood of severe flooding. Every new home, driveway, street, sidewalk and parking lot reduces the amount of open ground that absorbs runoff, and in some cases displaces the water’s natural drainage routes. Unfortunately, development in the South Hills has not included concomitant improvements to the city’s drainage system, and city engineers recognize that it’s only a matter of time before the valley experiences another severe flood.

The primary goal of this project, says Missoula Public Works Director Bruce Bender, is to remove most if not all of South Missoula from the 100-year flood plain, thus relieving residents and area businesses in that area from the burden of paying for flood insurance required by banks and other lenders.

By proposing an SID to pay for it, the city wants to spread the cost of this project over those areas that contribute storm water to the Pattee Creek/Farviews drainage basins, as well as those areas that will directly benefit from flood protection, with the valley portion assuming 77 percent of the costs (about $3.3 million) and the hillside portion assuming 23 percent (just over $1 million). For the average hillside resident, the annual SID cost would amount to about $70 annually; for the average valley resident, about $112, and in total would affect 2,909 total properties in South Missoula.

Few who testified Monday night argued that this project isn’t necessary. But here’s the rub: Under state law, an SID is created to fund a project that affects a specific sector of the city, and those who directly benefit from the project are the ones who pay for it. But some residents of Farviews, like Richard Buley who testified Monday night, argue that since his property is not in the flood plain, he reaps no direct benefit and shouldn’t be included in the assessment. Buley suggests that the city’s model may even be illegal, raising the specter that a court ruling could eventually force the city to reimburse residents for their SID costs. Other hillside residents argue that they specifically bought homes outside the flood plain, and shouldn’t now be forced to assume the cost for those who did.

Others, like state Sen. Vicki Cocchiarella, who lives, as she put it, “on the beach” of the 1980 flood, argues that if this were a discussion involving air quality, it would be a citywide concern paid for by all residents equally. Pitting one Aristotelian element (water) against the others—earth, wind and fire—could make for an interesting debate, especially if you look at who pays for soil erosion, air pollution monitoring, fire suppression, and so on.

Still others, like E.G. Heilman, argue that all city residents stand to benefit from this project.

“While I’m unlikely to be directly impacted by flooding, I’m more than willing to pay my share of the SID to make this a better community,” says Heilman, adding that residents in the South Hills drive, shop and send children to school in the valley.

It’s difficult to argue that all Missoula residents don’t stand to benefit in some way from flood protection, when you consider who would bear the cost of rebuilding roads damaged by floods, the emergency workers who would put in overtime managing a flood, the potential delays to EMS, fire, law enforcement, etc. Clearly, no home in Missoula is an island, even when rising flood waters make it appear otherwise.

With fellow Ward Five Councilmember Scott Morgan absent Monday night, Councilmember Jack Reidy sent the SID request back to committee for fine tuning, and to allow residents additional time to comment on a project some say they only recently learned about.

Time is also a factor. The South Missoula Storm Drain Project is part of a larger, $11.2 million project to reconstruct 39th Street, Higgins and SW Higgins, which must be under contract by fall 2000, or else the city stands to lose all state and federal grant money. Plus, it makes more sense if the city only tears up our streets once.

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