A group of residents in the Town of Evans has waited half a century for government agencies to stem the flooding of Big Sister Creek, but their patience has only resulted in two dusty studies on a shelf.
In that period, floods destroyed a home and a pool (twice) and temporarily submerged dozens of backyards, basements, and living rooms. The water recedes, but leaves behind a mess of tree limbs, sediment and ice blocks that makes some properties unrecognizable.
“If it’s in your yard and you’re in that way of that water, it gets picked up and it just gets displaced in someone else’s yard,” said Lisa Guenot, who lives off Rt. 5 and serves on the neighborhood-formed Fix Big Sister Creek Committee.
The two studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, finished 20 years apart, did not result in any mitigation.
A major flood of the creek in February 1965 triggered what many believe was the first study of flood control solutions ordered by the Town of Evans as part of the 1948 Flood Control Act. The flood damaged 18 homes and submerged most of the property by the town’s sewage plant.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed levees and drainage structures to control the flooding caused by ice jams, the winter thaw, and spring rains. But a cost-benefit analysis showed the project would not qualify for federal funding, and the proposal fizzled.
The second study, published in 1997, didn’t even bother pitching solutions. Instead, the Army Corps of Engineers said the assessment could be used as the foundation for new land-use controls in the flood plain.
“I’ve been in government for a little while,” said Erie County Legislator John Mills, who was elected in 2005. “Studies are wonderful, but they’re wonderful only if you implement what the study tells you to do, and a lot of times, those studies go on the shelf.”
Whatever the solutions are, residents interviewed by News 4 Investigates expressed doubt that government officials will complete the work if they need a rosy cost-benefit analysis to start. After all, the flooding impacts roughly 30 property owners, which can be a hard sell for government funds.
“But I think it’s expensive, and I don’t think it’s justifiable in their head,” said Frank Markott, who has lived by the creek for 45 years. “And I don’t think it affects enough people, so that’s part of the problem.”
Various town supervisors, state representatives, and federal agencies have come and gone over the years without results, but could this be the year something finally gets done?
Tom George, the town’s deputy supervisor appointed last year by his predecessor to town supervisor, believes so.
“I understand what the residents are talking about,” George said. “The funding. The studies. Getting everybody together in government to come up and finally get a plan of action in place.… I had nothing but support for them.”
Big Sister poses a big problem
The creek originates south of the Village of North Collins and moves north before it connects with Rythus Creek, before it enters Lake Erie by Bennett Beach.
The section that extends from the creek’s mouth into the Town of Evans poses the most significant problems, when ice jams push high water upstream for 3 miles.
The first study in the 1970s deemed the ice jams the chief cause of the flooding. The solutions included three levees and drainage structures behind them, with preliminary estimates of almost $125,000, which is equal to about $1.2 million in today’s dollars.
When the U.S. Army Corps finished another evaluation of the creek in 1997, the agency recommended local officials use it as the foundation to better manage future development in the flood plain.
Town officials used to blast dynamite to break up the ice, but that effort stopped. Markott said the problem has gotten much worse since then.
“It’s been 45 years, and now that I’m getting older, it’s tougher to clean up the debris and the mess,” Markott said.
Residents have their own ideas for solutions. One property owner built his own levee to keep the flood waters at bay.
Some people believe raising the bridge on Rt. 5 would prevent ice blocks that can cause floods.
Others believe in adding pylons in the creek to break up any ice, similar to a successful project in Cazenovia Creek in West Seneca.
The bridge is scheduled to be replaced, but a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation said the project is still being designed, with no timetable for construction.
Others believe the creek’s S-curves need to be straightened and the creek bed dredged.
State Senator Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, whose father lived by the creek, said he met with property owners in February and brought stakeholders back to the table.
“There’s no easy response,” Gallivan said.
“So, as I see, our role is to try to get people together to identify the right people to take the lead, and then provide the support where we can, and to move it forward and work toward a solution,” Gallivan said.
In 1999, Guenot lost her home to flooding. She estimates the creek water is 3 feet higher than when her family purchased the property.
She rebuilt at a higher elevation, but the family business, Mike’s Landscaping, remains in the flood’s path.
Guenot said that before Gallivan’s involvement, neighbors sought help from various state and local agencies without luck.
“We’ve contacted everyone we can and here we are, sadly enough, mid-July, winter’s coming,” Guenot said, but, “there’s no plan in place.”
David Schulenberg, chief of planning for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Buffalo, said flood risk management is part of the agency’s purpose, but the two prior reports are too outdated to be relied on for solutions.
“Flooding problems – they can be tough,” Schulenberg said. “But if we work together at the federal, state, and local level, there’s probably some solution that we can come up with, whether it’s structural or non-structural, some sort of solution we can work together to implement to reduce flooding along Big Sister Creek.”
Markott, who believes the creek flooding has never been mitigated because the costs outweigh the benefits, said part of the government’s role is to protect the health of citizens.
“And we pay taxes,” he said. “So they should at least be offering some kind of solution, but they’re not.”
The town plans to apply for a $55,000 grant for an engineering study that will detail both the causes and solutions to ease the flooding.
“Unfortunately, the initial step, yet again, is a study,” Gallivan said.
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