During a presentation by Interim Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson about the Aug. 12 rain event that poured 7.11 inches of rain on East Lansing in about six hours, City Manager George Lahanas on Tuesday evening told City Council that one use City staff is recommending for federal Covid relief funds is a program to help homeowners pay for backflow prevention measures.
That recommendation was further fleshed out during Lahanas’ presentation on the funds the City received via the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021.
ARPA is a $1.9 trillion dollar federal economic stimulus package signed into law on March 11, 2021, and the City of East Lansing has been apportioned approximately $12.2 million of that money.
According to Lahanas’ presentation, the City can spend it in four main ways: Responding to the pandemic and negative economic impacts; premium pay for eligible workers; provision of government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue; or necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure. (Lahanas noted that it cannot be spent on the City’s pension fund.)
In the draft plan presented by Lahanas on Tuesday evening, $500,000 of that $12.2 million would be dedicated to helping homeowners pay for backflow prevention measures. And as Lahanas explained it to Council, these funds would be for splitting the cost of preventative backflow measures with homeowners.
“These are extremely rough estimates,” Lahanas said.
Council member Lisa Babcock asked if the City could dedicate a large portion of the money — she used the roughly $4 million estimated for renovations to the Hannah Community Center as an example — to help ameliorate the damages already caused for residents by flooding.
Mayor Jessy Gregg said she was hesitant to do something that targeted specific homeowners and that could vary so widely in terms of outcome. She did suggest the City should cover more than half the cost for backflow measures for people who had already had sewage back up into their basements, something more like 80% of the cost.
Council member Shanna Draheim also asked about potential actions the City could take to prevent flooding issues on public property, like Robert Shaw Park, which flooded on Aug. 12. Council member Ron Bacon concurred with Draheim on that point. Bacon also suspected that there might be more state and federal money coming to fix infrastructure issues, and he’d rather see the ARPA money spent on projects that might not receive other funding.
As Council only discussed the matter on Tuesday, any direct action is still a ways away. Lahanas did say City engineering staff could begin taking preliminary steps on that program in a matter of months, though, while other planned uses for ARPA funds could be considered less urgent.
Babcock also shared that she will be hosting a flooding town hall meeting on Oct. 21 at the East Lansing Public Library.
Babcock dubbed it a “town hall meeting and listening session” that will take place from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. that evening, where residents can speak with Babcock and a plumber she’s hiring from out of town to help inform residents about what they can do to protect themselves and their homes. The meeting will also be available via Zoom for those who can’t attend in person, Babcock said. She didn’t identify the plumber who will be in attendance at the town hall.
Announcing the town hall during the portion of the meeting for comments from Council members, Babcock also invited Lahanas and Interim DPW Director Nicole McPherson.
“The reason I’m doing this is I’ve heard from many members of the public, and particularly members of the public who aren’t sure what to do to protect their homes. So I’m bringing in a plumber from out of town so I don’t show any local favoritism,” Babcock said.
The backdrop for Lahanas bringing up the ARPA funds was Council’s discussion following a presentation about the Aug. 12 rains and subsequent flooding.
McPherson’s presentation emphasized that the amount of rain that fell was too much for the sanitary and storm sewers. She explained that flooding was widespread in the City — and not just localized around the construction in Glencairn — because the whole sewer system exceeded capacity.
Responding to a question from Gregg after the presentation, McPherson explained that the sewer exceeding capacity doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the water is backed up from the very end of the system to whatever point the flooding occurred. If enough water is flowing through the pipes already, even if it is moving downstream, more water from upstream can’t just flow in. That means as pipes started to flow and reach capacity on Aug. 12, other pipes flowing into them upstream wouldn’t be capable of draining that water.
The rain that fell that night, McPherson said during her presentation, qualifies as a 1,000-year rain, meaning there is effectively a 0.1% chance of such a storm occurring. It doesn’t mean a rain like that only happens once every 1,000 years.
It is theoretically possible to upsize the sewer systems to handle the extreme rains, McPherson said, but not something that can realistically be done.
Similarly, the 30% of the City sewer that is sanitary and stormwater combined can’t be divided into separate sewers for waste and stormwater if the sewer downstream isn’t also separated, McPherson said. Separating the entire sewer system would be a 30 to 40-year project, she said.
“To be able to size a sewer to take on these — it’s not an effective solution to be able to do that. You have to start kind of fresh with a new city to have that kind of mentality,” McPherson said.
Instead, the City will continue to make recommendations to homeowners about improvements they can make themselves. The recommendations provided by McPherson on Tuesday were:
- Install a backflow preventor/check valve
- Slope adjacent ground surfaces away from the house
- Install extensions on downspouts
- Regularly maintain gutters to clear any possible blockages
- Raise window wells above the anticipated outside water level
- Understand your insurance policy to determine what is covered
Council began discussing the cost of these measures, but didn’t ask if the City would be paying. Instead, they asked if the City could include estimates or ranges of costs for these recommended preventative measures — this is when Lahanas shared his bit about the ARPA funds.
Council member Dana Watson was the first to discuss potential costs of measures to prevent flooding and asked McPherson if the City could include information about cost relative to effectiveness. Watson also asked if, in responding to reports of flooding, the City tracked what structures had flooded and tailored recommendations based on the various damage.
McPherson answered yes, in part, to the former, pointing out that costs to do vary widely for measures like a backflow valve, based on the complexities of installation. And the City did not keep a central record of flooded structures and potential site-specific remedies. Gregg concurred with Watson that a scale of costs could be helpful for homeowners exploring the various preventive measures.
Watson also asked what renters, particularly those in garden level apartments whose entire homes may have been destroyed, could do to protect themselves with flooding. McPherson said renter’s insurance was key.
McPherson also sought to contextualize just how much rain fell overnight on Aug. 12.
For one, McPherson noted that the average rainfall for the entire month of August in East Lansing is around 3.5 inches. In total, 7.11 fell in six hours during just the Aug. 12 rain event.
She also shared a table featuring the 10 most extensive rainfalls in the last 73 years at the Lansing Capital Region International Airport, noting that the water levels there would be different than what happened in East Lansing, but comparable. The Aug. 12 rains were the seventh most intense rain event on that table, and the airport only got 3.7 inches of rain then.
McPherson said that this is “laying out that this was a significant event in this region.”
And her ultimate point, one that hasn’t been said entirely clearly, is that the City and residents simply can’t be wholly protected from these extreme weather events.