City council debates drain system

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    By TRAVIS MURDOCK

    Provo residents should prepare themselves for another city bond. The city storm drain system is in need of improvements to prevent flooding that could cost $9.4 million.

    “We keep waiting and waiting to improve the current system and costs continue to rise. We are chasing our tails,” said Shari Holweg, Provo City Council member. “No council or politician wants to talk about raising fees, and the storm drain is the unseen infrastructure that no one knows about until it fails you.”

    The storm drain improvements have become a hot issue due to the threat of flooding and the recent bonding for the new library at Academy Square. To pay for the improvements, the Stormwater Service District of Provo has proposed to bond for $8 million and pay the bond back with an increase in usage fees.

    Current fees for homes and apartments in Provo are $2.43 per month and are found on monthly utility bills. The proposal would increase the fees to $4 per month.

    “We are a desert and we don’t get a lot of rain all of the time, but when we get the water, it is all at once,” said Greg Beckstrom, district engineer of the Provo Stormwater Service District.

    The Provo City Stormwater District was created in 1992, in response to the need for planning and improvements in the previously haphazard approach to storm drain maintenance. At the district’s creation, there were more than 12,000 points of maintenance that needed cleaning and repair.

    “Not completing the storm drain program leaves the community at some risk of damage from flooding. The question is how quickly do we attempt to minimize that risk and provide protection to the citizens,” Beckstrom said.

    The city experiences four types of flooding including: Utah Lake flooding, Provo River flooding, frontal canyon flooding and high ground water.

    The only controllable flooding is frontal canyon flooding and the water raining on city streets. The Provo River and Utah Lake rise and fall according to the weather and are uncontrollable. The water flowing out of the smaller canyons including Little Rock Canyon, Rock Canyon and Slate Canyon, dump a considerable amount of water into the community’s storm drain system.

    Left unimproved, the water from these canyons quickly fill the current system to capacity during rain storms. When the water has no where to go, it floods homes as it flows toward Utah Lake.

    Each year Provo residents pay $1 million in user fees to improve and maintain the current system, according to Beckstrom. Approximately 50 percent of the money raised is used for new capital projects, and 50 percent to maintain the current system. For the past few years the city has received $300,000 each year in Community Block Grants, but that money is not guaranteed to continue.

    “The money from the Community Block Grants has remained constant for the last few years and is not even keeping up with inflation,” Beckstrom said.

    Supporters of the accelerated plan note the Community Block Grant money could be cut at anytime, so the city must act quickly while the money is still available.

    The proposed plan of increasing fees and issuing a bond will complete a list of 16 out of 18 projects that need improvement in the city in three to five years. Without the bond, the projects could take eight to nine years to complete.

    Beckstrom recommends the city adopt the more aggressive option and issue a bond to protect the citizens from water damage. Many citizens don’t realize most home insurance policies don’t cover flood damage.

    Council members have differing views on the issue.

    “The last several years we have done a lot to improve the storm drain system, and I don’t want to go into debt. This year is a test year for flooding, and it is too late to do anything for this year,” said Karl J. Thalman, Provo City Council member. Thalman wants to wait to see if our current system is sufficient to handle the expected floods.

    “If the storm drain system can handle the water this year we may not need to go into debt, but my mind may change after we see what happens,” Thalman said.

    “When are we in bondage to our bonding?” said Greg Hudnall, Provo City Council member, at a city council meeting last month.

    Council member Holweg is a vocal supporter of the storm drain improvements.

    “It is up to the public to decide if they want to improve the current system. I trust the public to make a good decision when they are informed, and a politician should not be afraid to educate the public on an issue,” Holweg said.

    Beckstrom compared changing a car’s oil filter to the improvements in the storm drain system.

    “You never know when you will burn out your engine. Some people don’t change it and nothing happens. You are balancing risk against security and money,” Beckstrom said.

    “If, for the next five or 10 years we are in a dry cycle, it might be worth the risk. If we are in a wet cycle, we need to improve the system. The problem is we don’t know what the weather is going to be next week, let alone next month or year,” Beckstrom said.

    Another potential problem is Provo City’s population is reaching 100,000 residents and must begin to treat all storm drain water. The current system allows water to flow into the Provo River and Utah Lake untreated. Treating the thousands of gallons that flow out of the canyons and through the storm drain system could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

    Because the canyons are federal lands, the Stormwater Service District is looking to ask the federal government to pay for its share of the problem. They have asked the council for money for a feasibility study to measure the amount of water that originates on federal property.

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