By Joe Otto, Communications Specialist at the Iowa Water Center
The City Spotlight series highlights ongoing efforts by Iowans living in cities to address water issues impacting their neighborhoods.
Suburbanization in Iowa’s cities and towns has been well underway since the 1990s and beyond. Homeowners in the suburbs enjoy closer-knit neighborhoods and quieter streets, but recently residents in two subdivisions of Mason City took action to combat a lingering exposure to flooding that has recently become more problematic.
Following a wet summer of 2018, Mason City is exploring options to better combat flooding on its east side. Residents in the Asbury and Eastbrooke neighborhoods met to hear the City’s plans to help protect their homes from future flooding. Damaging floods during the summer of 2018 caused the City to explore upgrades to their storm water and drainage infrastructure that was unable to hold back the rising waters.
The two suburban neighborhoods are located right next to one another. Both are in the Winnebago River watershed, but only Asbury is right along the Winnebago River. Five hundred and ninety-seven square miles of land in the Winnebago river valley drains into the Asbury neighborhood, including Clear Lake and the upper course of the Winnebago, from Mason City, past Forest City and Fertile, to its source at Bear Lake in Minnesota (Iowa Flood Center). Eastbrooke, on the other hand, sits along a small branch of the Winnebago, Ideal Creek, that outlets into the river just downstream from the subdivision. The drainage area of the Ideal Creek watershed above Eastbrooke is 9.4 square miles, which spans northward as far as 305th Street in Cerro Gordo County (Iowa Flood Center). Although these watersheds are very different in size, they do share a common problem. When floodwaters threaten homeowners on the banks of the Winnebago, the river is too swollen to allow water from Ideal Creek to discharge. The result is that both neighborhoods experience flooded basements and overworked sump pumps.
Two plans are under consideration. The first is to build a new drain with sufficient capacity. The current one was built in the 1980s, before these neighborhoods existed. In the 1980s the lands in question were farmed and tiled with 16-inch drains, but when then subdivisions were formed in the 1990s the tile was abandoned and left in place. In response to complaints, in 2016 the City redirected some of the tile into a storm sewer and cleared the system of tree roots. The cost to replace the old system is about $300,000.
The second plan is for the property owners to petition their City government to form a drainage district. Under Iowa law, residents seeking relief from overflow on their lands can form a special taxing district that exists apart from the city’s general taxing structure. Property within the district is taxed to pay for new drainage systems. Option two would require close cooperation with the Cerro Gordo County Supervisors and the Mason City Council, as both have jurisdiction in drainage district matters. Other cities have followed this route, such as the City of Storm Lake in Buena Vista County. If homeowners explore this option they might consider reaching out to their neighbors to the west to learn more about the pros and cons of forming a drainage district. Another source of information is the City of Spirit Lake in Dickinson County, where a drainage district includes much of the city as well as neighboring agricultural land. Mason City officials have experience in drainage matters as well, as part of a Cerro Gordo County drainage district, No. 17, lies within the city limits on the west side. The outlet of the ditch is Chelsea Creek, just downstream from the Mason City Country Club. An area of 2 square miles drains into this district (Iowa Flood Center). This option is expected to cost at minimum $50,000 and would enable residents to more easily request and pay for future maintenance and repairs.
The problems faced by residents of Asbury and Eastbrooke show the unintended consequences of developing suburbs in flood-prone areas. Their efforts to work with local governments, both city and county, to solve these problems is laudable and may provide an example to other Iowans living in similarly-impacted areas.
City Officials commissioned the Mason City-based engineering firm of WHKS to perform the study. As first reported by KAAL-TV, the recent public meeting was held on December 5th and was part of the planning process. City Officials are accepting public comments on this project and expect to issue a final report by the end of December. Readers interested in commenting or learning more about Mason City’s planning process should contact the Mason City engineer’s office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 641-421-3605. To learn more about the county’s management of a drainage district that includes lands within the limits of a city, contact the Cerro Gordo County Auditor’s office at email@example.com or 641-421-3064.
Joe Otto is the Communications Specialist for the Iowa Water Center. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, where he is writing a dissertation on the history of drainage in Iowa.
Do you live in a city facing a pressing water management issue? Let the Iowa Water Center put a spotlight on it. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
City of Mason City. Commissioner’s Report: Reclassification of Benefits, Drainage District No. 17. Accessed 12-10-2018. www.masoncity.net/files/documents/DDNo17CommissionersReport1191082749062617AM.pdf
City of Spirit Lake. Drainage District #22. Accessed 12-10-2018. https://www.cityofspiritlake.org/government/drainage-district-22/
City of Storm Lake. Drainage District Trustees. Accessed 12-10-2018. https://www.stormlake.org/463/Drainage-District-Trustees
Google Earth. Accessed 12-10-2018.
Iowa Flood Information System, Iowa Flood Center, University of Iowa. Accessed 12-10-2018. https://iowafloodcenter.org/
KAAL-TV Channel 6, Mason City, IA. “Mason City Residents Share Thoughts on Flood Mitigation Efforts,” Accessed 12-10-2018. https://www.kaaltv.com/news/mason-city-residents-share-thoughts-on-flood-mitigation-efforts/5169184/