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The difference: Sweat, preparation and luck spared city from floodwaters

Riverside parks saw plenty of visitors as the Willamette River rose to its highest levels since 1996 last week. (KEIZERTIMES/Jason Cox)

Of the Keizertimes

When the river and Keizer creeks start to rise, comparisons to floods of yore inevitably float to the surface.

The most common frame of reference was the 1996 floods. An orderly evacuation preceded flooding in McNary Estates and a surprise rise in Labish Creek in the Country Glen and Hidden Creek neighborhoods. Labish would rise again the next winter, flooding several homes.

Rain levels now and in 1996 were fairly similar. So what spared Keizer from the floodwaters this time? A combination of preparation, perspiration and plain luck.

Mother Nature lent a hand, with well-timed breaks in the rain. Downpours tended to be extremely localized, unlike the widespread rains of 1996. The snow pack didn’t compare to 1996, when as much as a foot of the white stuff sat below Detroit Dam, and thus rivers were already at an elevated state when rain drenched the valley for days and days in February 1996.

But preparation showed positive results in 1996, and lessons learned since then may well have spared homes along local waterways from further damage.

The Willamette River reaches major flood stage at 32 feet; in 1996 it rose to 35 feet. In 1996, much of west Keizer was saved from the river’s wrath by an earthen dike standing where the river wall is now – starting at Cummings Lane north to about 15th Avenue NE, where floodwaters would spill onto land at a bend in the river. That’s precisely what happened during major floods in the 1960s and earlier. The Christmas flood in 1963 saw river levels rise to 37.78 feet – the highest level recorded since World War II. The dike was built in response to these events.

The water had gotten almost that high in 1996, when Public Works Superintendent Bill Lawyer walked the length of the dike and remembers water lapping just 18 inches from its top.

Illustration by KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

The earthen dike held – and a temporary one was quickly filled in near what is now Keizer Rapids Park – but Lawyer said the events gave public works staff a blueprint of sorts for where to focus.

For one, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused to certify the dike, which Lawyer said would have dramatically raised flood insurance rates throughout the city.

The dike became a wall by digging a trench and filling it with concrete. That only raised the height slightly, Lawyer said, but provided stabilization. Constructing a permanent earthen dike at Keizer Rapids Park, cutting off a seasonal channel that was prone to flooding, removed some areas of the city from the 100-year flood plain.

Mental imagery of a rising river had many clicking refresh on a website showing water levels, and more visiting riverside parks to get a glimpse for themselves. Ultimately the river rose to more than 29 feet – enough to flood low-lying areas, but not enough to trigger evacuations or worse, Lawyer said.

“It is a moving target with these projections,” Lawyer said.

Had floodwaters reached 32 feet or higher, it’s likely that the Willow Lake Wastewater Treatment Facility would have been unable to function, meaning we may have seen an repeat of the 1996 evacuations, Lawyer said.

Creekside dwellers will never forget bearing the brunt of floods in both 1996 and 1997 (just like last week, when sudden rising water sent many to the hardware store for a brand-new pump).

Some, like alongside Claggett Creek, was not altogether unexpected. Others, like the residents of Hidden Creek and Country Glen subdivisions, never saw it coming.

Labish Creek (or ditch, depending on the time of year) can flow in two directions: West to the river, or east into the onion fields that formerly made up Lake Labish. The former lake bottom filled up in 1996 and 1997, sending unexpected waters west into Keizer.

“When that happened, Labish was just overwhelmed,” Lawyer said.

A small farming dam known as the Parkersville Dam was the subject of years of litigation between the city and a local irrigation district. Water on one side of the dam goes into Labish Creek, while the eastwardly flow heads into the Little Pudding River and then the Pudding River.

“We assert that (irrigation district’s) choice not to pump the lake down on the other side of the dam contributed to the flooding,” said City Manager Chris Eppley.

Public works staff were determined to ensure local hands decided Keizer’s fate in the future. No matter whose fault it was that the water from Labish Creek ended up in homes along its banks, something had to be done with it.

To tame it, Lawyer said, public works staff had to learn how it worked.

“Part of it was a lack of understanding of how the system worked,” Lawyer said. “There were also no gauges to rely on… or historical data.”

To this day, someone has to drive to the gauges under River Road near Manzanita Avenue and on Portland Road.

Crews got to work in the coming years on an overflow system that would allow more water to be retained on site. An overflow channel in Country Glen Park “worked just like we designed it to,” Lawyer said. Another man-made overflow area behind homes on Jakewood Court and Hidden Creek Court filled with water just as planned, although it did cause some localized street flooding in that area.

A federally-mandated stormwater management program paid dividends last week also. Storm drains that in past high-water events overflowed didn’t this time because a specially-designed truck allows public works crews to clean catch basins and storm drains at least once every four years. The feds require cleaning at least 25 percent of them annually; that figure is closer to 40 percent in Keizer.

“Places that typically flood or exhibit localized flooding didn’t,” Eppley said. “And where we’d normally be pumping areas out, we didn’t have to do that.”

Public works staff started monitoring water levels early in the week, and were prepared to pump the city’s storm drain system if necessary into the Willamette River. The pipes flowing into the river are designed to seal off when the river reaches their level, stopping backflow into the storm drain system.

High water on Kalmia Drive and Kafir Drive was expected, and closed those streets for much of the day Thursday. But it was mostly gone by the end of the day, Lawyer said.

The public works department operated for two days a modified emergency operations center out of its shop behind the Keizer Fire District. The prediction was for a heavy workload without widespread flooding, which is exactly what they got.

But the images of homes underwater in Turner, and of Mill Creek spilling its banks just a couple miles south of us, spooked plenty of people.

“They thought we were trying to downplay it, asking if they needed to evacuate,” said Jenniffer Warner, a public works specialist.

And what in many places turned out a catastrophe served as a live training exercise for Keizer’s public works staff, Eppley said.