Published 7:45am Monday, February 28, 2011

Austin’s flood mitigation efforts could soon be a model used across the country.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., praised Austin’s flood mitigation efforts during a visit with Public Works Director Jon Erichson and Mayor Tom Stiehm Saturday. “I think it’s just a model of what can be done,” she said.

Klobuchar said she plans to take Austin’s story to Washington, D.C., to use as a model for how effective efforts to reduce flood impacts can be. Klobuchar serves on the Agriculture Committee and said flood prevention is being discussed more nationwide.

“I think it’d be really great to highlight some of the projects that have worked,” she said.

Austin is an example of short-term and long-term projects being used to lessen the flood impact, Klobuchar said. She also commended Austin for acquiring all the flood projects voluntarily from citizens.

“You have really done a lot,” the senator said. “It’s amazing.”

Austin officials have been proactive in preventing flood damage by acquiring 300 residential homes and moving them from the flood plain.

“You guys have been so smart about it,” Klobuchar said.

Erichson said federal dollars have played a significant part in Austin’s flood mitigation efforts. Austin, according to Erichson, has put the federal dollars to good use.

“We’ve received significant amounts of federal dollars to make this work,” Erichson said.

Many of the significant floods have come in the last decade with the city’s highest flood in 2004, the third highest flood in 2008 and the sixth highest flood in 2010.

“Every four years, we get flooded,” Stiehm said. “You can almost set the calendar by it.”

However, the effect of floods has drastically decreased as the city’s flood mitigation project has moved homes and businesses out of the flood plain. When the town flooded last September, Erichson said the total damage was only about $150,000. Damage likely would have topped $1 million for that same level flood 20 years ago, he said.

Erichson also said the Cedar River Watershed District’s goal of reducing the water coming into Austin by 20 percent would be as significant as anything the city has done so far.

“This is where the water ends up — not where it begins,” Erichson said.

One reason flood mitigation has been so important to Austin is because many of the city’s core businesses are near the flood plain. Erichson said the core of Austin’s business community is located near the Main Street project.

Hormel Foods Corp., Hormel’s corporate office, Quality Pork Processor, Inc., the Spam Museum, and Austin Medical Center are located near Mill Pond and the Cedar River.

AMC is about to announce a $28 million expansion project, and Erichson said Mayo Health Systems is counting on the flood projects to prevent flood damage.

The Agriculture Committee addresses rural development, and Klobuchar said a flood could put a town back years. With budgets a significant concern, Klobuchar said leaders in Washington, D.C., don’t want to pay to clean up after floods each year.

“The question is how do you adapt,” Klobuchar said.

Preventative measures are often cheaper and a better use of funds than simply cleaning up each year, Klobuchar said.

Flood mitigation efforts aren’t over in Austin. Erichson said another 25 acquisitions are likely.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get done with it,” Erichson said. “It’s ongoing … but it’s working.”

Klobuchar said communities can’t close their eyes to threats of flooding; they have to adapt to prevent damage.

“You realize it’s going to happen again and figure out what the best way is to prevent it,” Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar asked about the prospects of a 2011 spring flood from snowmelt. Spring flooding doesn’t appear to be a pressing issue this year in Austin, and Erichson said Austin’s floods have typically been caused by flash floods, not melting snow.