A frustrating flood: Drainage-maligned Mitchell area was hit hard once more
Wayne Vickers has been hard at work since the middle of September, installing drywall and bringing conditions back up to speed at Prestige Salon and Spa.
Vickers, like many in Mitchell, has been working since the Sept. 11-12 rainstorm that flooded out his wife’s business. And Vickers asked himself one burning question since then: what caused the flooding in his neighborhood to be as bad as ever?
“We’ve never had water inside on the main floor in my 35 years of owning this place, and I know we had a lot of rain in a five-hour period that night, but it’s odd it drained so slow,” Vickers said in an interview with The Daily Republic. “There could have been a storm drain that was out of service during that time with the construction going on.”
Since the two-day September rainstorm that drenched Mitchell with 7 to 9 inches of rainfall, The Daily Republic examined potential causes as to why the East Hackberry and Kimball Street area -- which is known for being a location with standing water and drainage issues -- suffered some of the worst flooding in Mitchell’s history.
In that process, several items have come into focus: many promised improvements included in the nearby Tax Increment Finance District have not taken place, leading the city of Mitchell to respond with a $5 million drainage project that remains a year away. A recently built retention pond located roughly a mile south of the flooding site and the city’s current construction projects nearby that were in progress during the flood have also taken some blame. And the city’s difficult history with the low-lying land remains a constant.
While the water has receded, frustrations and uncertainty have surrounded the area and the topic. Vickers is one of those residents who owns property on the corner of East Havens Avenue and South Kimball Street, which is at the heart of where the September flooding inflicted perhaps the most damage in town.
Vickers speculated that the city’s sewer and water system might not have been adequately functioning during the rainstorm. Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson and city officials have stood firm in claiming there weren’t any errors or irregularities in the drainage for that specific area. For the city, Everson said, it’s a case of bad timing.
“The East Central Drainage Project was taking place not very far from that area, but there was absolutely no lack of drainage in the area during the storm,” Everson said. “It’s too bad that this took place when it did, because most of the entire drainage project will be done by next year. I feel for the businesses and homes that got severely damaged, and I understand the frustrations. But 8 to 10 inches of rain in one night is out of my and the city’s control.”
In an already historic year of weather in Mitchell, the mid-September storm stands alone. Officially, Mitchell received 7.08 inches of rain at the Mitchell Municipal Airport over three days, including a Sept. 11 city record of 3.53 inches of rain. It’s easily the wettest year in Mitchell in more than 20 years and is rivaling 1993, another infamous flooding year in South Dakota and throughout the Midwest. In 1993, Mitchell received 36.19 inches of rain for the year.
To date, Mitchell has received 34 inches of precipitation since the beginning of the year, including 8.96 inches of precipitation since Sept. 1, according to National Weather Service data, and Mitchell is nearly 14 inches above normal for this time of year.
Steps toward improving drainage
While the drainage issues in the area go back decades, recent efforts to improve the Hackberry and Kimball flooding issues go back to 2016, when the Mitchell City Council approved a tax increment financing, or TIF, district. TIF District No. 22 was meant to allow for $1.6 million in curb and gutter and storm sewer improvements, and the paving of North Kimball and North Lawler streets, along with East Hackberry and East Juniper avenues. In conjunction, Klock Werks custom motorcycles and Patzer Woodworking intended to expand their facilities and add jobs to the area in a five-year span. Another facet of the project was a 62-unit townhome project. In all, the TIF was projected to add more than $7 million in estimated value for all the projects.
Nearly four years since approval, only a portion of the planned upgrades have come together. Local property developers Michael Miiller and Boyd Reimnitz have built two townhome buildings, consisting of 14 units. Separate developments in the area have included two twin homes and a Habitat for Humanity house, but improvements for the Klock Werks and Patzer businesses haven’t materialized yet.
City Council Vice President Dan Allen was one of the council members who approved the TIF, which has a five-year window for property improvement projects to take place in the TIF. In a TIF, the increase in property tax revenue in the area is what funds public infrastructure improvements and pays back the city of Mitchell, and those improvements can be paid off over a 20-year period.
Allen said he believes some of those requirements in the TIF could have improved drainage in and around the area where the worst of the flooding took place.
“Since I’ve been on the City Council, this is the only TIF that hasn’t produced and paid for itself like they are intended to, and I believe the drainage would have been improved if the TIF panned out,” Allen said.
Some of the TIF funds were going to be used to add a retention basin on South Kimball Street and complete portions of nearby gravel streets, according to city documents.
But in 2018, the city of Mitchell changed course, determining that the TIF wasn’t going to produce the increment needed to fix the drainage issues. With decades of flooding and drainage issues the low-lying area has experienced, City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein said it was clear the homes and businesses in that development needed all the help it could get.
“The growth and improvements that the city was told would happen in the TIF haven’t, but we came in to help and move forward with the project because it’s important for that area,” Ellwein said of the area. “There’s no way this TIF would have financially worked out and have been paid off in 20 years, so instead we went after the State Revolving Fund (SRF) financing that will help pay for the $5.1 million in expenses for the drainage project.”
The East Central Drainage Project will do many of the same things that the TIF intended to do -- with curb and gutter improvements, paving some streets and improving storm sewer lines in the area, which will be larger in size to include key areas near Havens Avenue and west of Burr Street.
Before the city approved the East Central project, Ellwein said a formal drainage study was conducted to determine the best possible option for improving drainage in that area. A major addition to the project was the installation of a new and larger outflow pipe that will allow water to leave the drainage area instead of pooling up like it used to. That was the most expensive option for the City Council to approve, Ellwein said.
“It was a huge commitment for the city to take on, because it goes against our debt capacity and we’re paying an annual payment on that,” Ellwein said. “But they made that investment because the council thought it was that important of a project for that area, and that’s something I think people may be missing in this whole drainage topic.”
With roughly a year left on the TIF’s five-year window, Ellwein said some of the businesses could still make some improvements and infrastructure.
“Once this project is done, you might see some of the businesses and people in the TIF make some improvements and infrastructure additions,” Ellwein said.
The Daily Republic reached out to Brian Klock, owner of Klock Werks, and Tom Patzer, owner of Patzer Woodworking. Klock and Patzer did not respond to a request for comment prior to the publication of this story. In previous Daily Republic stories since the flooding took place, both Klock and Patzer indicated they intend for their businesses to stay in their current locations and continue operations.
History of flood woes
According to Mitchell Public Works Director Kyle Croce, the low end outfall section of the East Central Drainage project -- which is designed to discharge water runoff into Dry Run Creek more efficiently than the existing layout -- needed to be constructed before storm sewer and drainage work along the Klock Werks TIF area begins.
The substantial completion date for Phase I of the East Central Drainage project wrapped up on Oct. 19, according to the city’s updated schedule of the project. Croce said the design for Phase II will be completed early December. Phase II -- which is the portion of the project that’s supposed to more directly alleviate drainage issues in the Hackberry and Kimball area -- is slated to be complete by 2020, weather permitting.
The main drainage pipe that’s being installed is 54 inches wide and extends along Havens Avenue. Croce said the city also requested to install the drainage pipe with the largest possible capacity.
“There is a lot of storm water runoff in that area, and it’s at a low elevation in a low-lying area,” Croce said. “Even with the mix of businesses and residential homes, there was a serious need to do something and make those improvements we are completing.”
Although the East Hackberry Avenue and Kimball Street area surrounding Klock Werks and Prestige Salon and Spa have had a long history of flooding during severe storm events, the area is not considered to be in a flood plain, according to Federal Emergency Management Administration’s flood map for Davison County. However, the most recent updated FEMA flood map shows the East Hackberry Avenue and South Kimball Street area is in a 500-year rain storm event.
A 500-year flood is an event that has a 1 in 500 chance of occurring in any given year (0.2 percent chance in a year), and properties in a 500-year flood event are not required to have flood insurance. But properties located in 100-year flood areas are required to have flood insurance as a condition of receiving a federally backed mortgage loan or home equity loan, according to FEMA.
Billy Wittstruck has resided at his 316 E. Hackberry Ave. home since 1990. Like many of the residents living in the area, Wittstruck has watched water flow into his garage and basement a handful of times during severe rain events, but he said the two-day September rainstorm brought the most water he’s witnessed in the three decades he’s lived there.
Wittstruck knows a little bit about water in the city, as he worked for the city of Mitchell in water distribution for over 30 years. He recalled the construction of Avera Grassland Health Campus and building a retention pond in the area in 2016, and said the pond has put more pressure on the drainage in the neighborhood. Ponds like the one at Avera Grassland are designed to provide additional storage capacity during rainfall events.
Despite the Avera Grassland retention pond being located roughly 1 mile south of Wittstruck’s home on East Hackberry Avenue, he theorized that the drainage path of the pond that leads north to Dry Run Creek played a major role in the flooding.
“Why didn’t they take the slough (retention pond) and drain it south down to Enemy Creek, instead of bringing it past Rowley Street, dropping it down on Main Street and draining the water into Dry Run Creek?” Wittstruck asked. “Why would we want to bring water from the outskirts of town to the center of town?”
While Everson was not serving as the mayor at the time of the Avera Grassland retention pond installation, he’s spent a significant amount of time looking into the concerns regarding the city’s drainage, including the retention pond.
According to Everson, the retention pond drains north into Dry Run Creek. He said the pond is equipped with a valve used to control water levels in a flooding event. Before the two-day rain event took place, Ellwein said the valve was closed as it was supposed to be.
“City Engineer (Joe) Schroeder and Mr. Croce both physically went out and opened that valve once the flood waters in the area of East Central Drainage had receded to the point where the drainage system could handle the additional water,” Everson said.
In addition, Everson said some of the speculation coming from the residents living around the Klock Werks area is unfounded. He claimed the city was draining nearly twice as much water that it could during the storm.
“We did not shut off the drainage, and it was running through the new as well as the old drainage,” Everson said.
Wittstruck understands Everson several other city officials were not responsible or involved in the construction and drainage pathway of the retention pond, but he still believes it’s a major factor that contributed to the severe flooding in the September rainstorm.
“This area has been flooding for years, and I’ve had a foot of water in my garage before but it would drain much quicker than it did in September,” Wittstruck said. “Ever since that Avera Grassland retention pond was built and the 36-inch storm drain was taken out to be replaced, drainage has been at its worst.”
While Vickers is hopeful that the East Central Drainage Project will work out, he is dispirited that it has taken this long to make fixes in the area. After all, helping his wife repair roughly $300,000 in water damages at their salon isn’t how the couple envisioned the business’ 35th year in operation.
“I know the city is taking care of it now, but why didn’t they do this a long time ago?” Vickers said. “Regardless, it’s just good it’s happening now. Better late than never, I suppose.”