Bethalto eyes cutting-edge natural means to fight water woes
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
BETHALTO — Mayor Alan Winslow says a drainage project being considered for his community might become a template for others to follow.
“If this comes to fruition the way we are envisioning, this may become a model project for other municipalities,” he said.
No question, the community must do something after an historic rainfall in July 2016 raced through town, inundating homes unlike anything anyone could remember.
The battle involves both storm and sanitary sewers, but it is the potential for a recently floated storm-water solution that has the mayor excited. The highlight would be enhancing the main drainage channel with native plants that would soak up much of the water and give it more time to carry it downstream — a much more cost-effective answer than an expensive construction project, he said.
Bethalto’s main water course handles the majority of water coming through the Madison County town, bisecting the community north and south for about three to four miles. The “headwater” starts near St. Louis Regional Airport before channeling its way under Route 140 and eventually north through several densely populated neighborhoods before emptying into Rocky Fork Creek, a tributary of the Mississippi River.
“As it continues going north, there are houses all along the path. We’re seeing lots of erosion problems and areas where it stands,” Winslow told the Illinois Business Journal.
Any problem along the water course will cause a resultant backup, he said.
“If we have a culvert that gets blocked by debris, or a tree that falls down into the water course, or if we have somebody dumping tires or construction debris, those things will contribute to water backing up and getting in peoples’ houses,” Winslow said.
Usually, a municipality brings in big equipment, cleans out a ditch and fills it with tons of riprap so it doesn’t erode.
“They’ll walk away, saying job done. But, of course, if you have any of these debris issues happen, you’re right back at square one, plus you’ve always got maintenance,” the mayor said.
The village was leaning toward construction until one of its staff members saw an article about an award-winning sustainability initiative by Lewis and Clark Community College, dealing with storm water on the campus in Godfrey.
Rather than destroy the surroundings through construction, the college actually enhanced the environment in order to be able to more effectively handle the water, Winslow said.
A couple of village officials visited LCCC to study the situation. The village then invited a number of “stakeholders” to discuss what Bethalto could do.
Residents, board members and a large delegation from the college gathered, including President Dr. Dale Chapman.
“It was fascinating,” Winslow said of the discussion. “What was so interesting is (LCCC) found a way to handle all this runoff from the parking lots and the buildings, and they did it in such a manner that — everywhere they addressed it — it was a parklike setting, absolutely beautiful. They incorporated landscaping into a storm-water project.”
More discussions followed, with the college’s designer getting more actively involved in Bethalto’s situation. The designer is now preparing a cost estimate.
“We had a number of conversations, and it’s amazing to see it unfold. Dr. Chapman’s take on this is, it’s not about storm water at all. It’s about marketing. It’s about taking a huge problem, turning it upside down and making it a huge asset,” Winslow said.
Instead of trying to rush the water down stream, the idea is to slow it down, and let it pool in a couple of areas and allow it to release naturally it over a period of 12 to 24 hours.
Starting at the headwaters of the system, the village would need about a 4-acre basin to temporarily contain the water. The basin area would be planted with native flora. Typically, storm water will penetrate several inches into the ground but there is associated surface runoff. Native plants, with roots that go down 12 to 15 feet, would create a strawlike effect of drawing water down, not only from the surface but “way into the substrata.”
Further downstream would be riffles, a series of small dams backing the water into pooling areas, again planted with natural plants. Once an area fills, the water spills over the dam, goes downstream a couple of hundred yards, hits a new dam and the process is repeated in stair-step effect.
Chapman has suggested that a footpath along portions of the project would add to the impact.
“We are really intrigued by this from the standpoint that instead of having a big rock-lined ditch running right through a residential area, we have an area that’s an enhancement to our park system,” Winslow said.
“We see this as a win-win. I can’t say we are 100 percent committed just yet because the designer is still working on the cost estimates. However, we think it’s likely we can proceed with this. Inactivity is not an option. We’ve got to do it and quickly. Whether we do the traditional rock lining or the natural course you will see this project move forward during 2017.”
If the village opts for the natural path there will be little constructional cost other than the riffles, he said. Grant money is a possibility.
In terms of land needed, the village already has some of the property through easement and has tentative agreement on access to land from at least some of the neighboring land holders. That would apply to a first phase, representing about the first three quarters of a mile, Winslow said. The idea would be to address the most important aspects first and continue the work downstream in future years.
He added: “I’m really optimistic we can get it done. We owe it to the citizens.”
The annual rainfall has not really changed all that much, but the weather patterns have changed. Now, when Bethalto does get storms, it gets dandies, two of them last year and the worst was July 20.
“A cell opened up right over us and it just didn’t move. It was reported it was about seven inches It was all over town,” Winslow said. “But the worst was along this water course — Kutter-Aljets subdivision and an older section of town off of Second Street and Virginia. We had one house under four feet of water.
“That’s one phase of it. Then, over on the east part of town, the original old part of town, we had a wave that just inundated that area.”