LEVEE OPTIONS: Seeking maximum benefit at minimum cost

Indy Midtown Magazine asked respected water policy analyst Bill Beranek to summarize briefings he has presented to the Hogsett administration on scenarios to complete the Indianapolis North Flood Damage Reduction Project.

by Bill Beranek

Based on a recent petition presented to the Mayor of Indianapolis, the vast majority of Rocky Ripple residents want Rocky Ripple and Butler University removed from the 100-year floodplain just as the City is paying to do for other neighborhoods.

There are three options to finish the Indianapolis North Flood Damage Reduction Project to remove Broad Ripple, Warfleigh, and Butler-Tarkington from the 100-year floodplain. Two of those also remove Rocky Ripple but only one of those two is fiscally practical and responsible.

Option One: Double Wall

  • Westfield wall and floodgate
  • Second Citizens Water intake and 16th Street dam
  • Later, FEMA-certified river wall around Rocky Ripple

Total capital cost: $78.3M (City’s share $61M)

Total operations/maintenance cost over 50 years: $37.5M (City’s share $37.5M)

Option One, the preferred option of the Ballard administration, remains the preferred option of the Hogsett administration. If the river wall were later completed, the funds spent on the Westfield wall and floodgate and the second intake would then serve no flood control purpose. Is that really the best use of limited public funds?

Option Two: Westfield wall and repair existing Rocky Ripple levee

  • Westfield wall and floodgate
  • Second Citizens Water intake
  • Repair Existing WPA-era 25-year levee in Rocky Ripple

Total capital cost: $38.3M (City’s share $21M)

Total operations/maintenance cost over 50 years: $37.5M (City’s share $37.5M)

The City has committed $10 million toward the existing Rocky Ripple levee. This leaves Rocky Ripple and Butler University without sufficient flood protection and still in the 100-year floodplain. The City considers this option the first step toward a future double wall and has expressed optimism that it could obtain much of the necessary tens of millions of dollars in long-term funding from the Indiana General Assembly, which seems highly unlikely.

Option Three: Single FEMA-certified Rocky Ripple river wall this paragraph can be offset w/ color/indent/etc.

  • FEMA-certified river wall around Rocky Ripple
  • Create Special Flood Levee District of property owners from Broad Ripple though Rocky Ripple benefitting from the flood control project to share funding of the final segment and ongoing operations and maintenance. All neighborhoods are removed from 100-year floodplain.

Total capital cost: $45M (City’s share $21M)

Total operations/maintenance cost for 50 years: $37.5M (City’s share $0)

Option One would require $12M to complete the Westfield wall ($9.3M from the Army Corps of Engineers, $3M from the City) and $16M to fund a back-up intake to the canal for Citizens Water to construct on the White River near 30th Street ($8M from City and $8M from water rate payers) to provide water when the canal is shut by the floodgate during a big flood. An additional $45M would be required from the City to construct a second wall around the Rocky Ripple portion of the floodplain and the Butler University athletic fields.

Option Two is the plan the City is implementing. It would build the Westfield wall and floodgate ($12M) and construct the back-up intake for Citizens Water ($16M) that are part of Option One. Also, the Hogsett administration has pledged to allocate $10 million over the next five years to repair the existing WPA-era Rocky Ripple levee and prepare homes along the levee to be relocated for construction of a possible future FEMA-certified wall.

However, this option leaves 300 Rocky Ripple homes with barely 25-year flood protection and offers no opportunity for expansion by Butler University into its west campus.

read more: Flood Protection Options for Rocky Ripple

Option Three would complete the entire project with a single wall along the river around the Rocky Ripple/Butler University floodplain for $45M. It could be funded in part by the $21M the City would have spent in Option Two plus contributions from Butler and Citizens Water for benefits they receive from this option. The remainder of the capital costs and all of the annual maintenance costs could be paid by assessments from a Special Flood Levee District that includes all benefitting properties from Broad Ripple through Rocky Ripple, beginning when the project is certified and the mandated flood insurance ceases.

‘A more elegant solution’

Option Three provides a path for the City to save millions of dollars, to protect more property, to protect the public water supply canal, to preserve the Central Canal towpath as a recreational amenity for Midtown, to avoid the political and public safety tragedy of sand-bagging closed the only egress from Rocky Ripple during a big flood, and to preserve Holcomb Gardens as it is and allow Butler to develop the west campus.

Option Three would likely take two to three years longer than Option Two to complete. (AECOM, the engineering firm hired by the City to examine options, estimates two years in its February 2017 report.)

Therefore, the cost of the delay for Option 3 compared to Option 2 is two to three years of continued mandatory flood insurance for mortgages and restriction on some major construction for owners in the floodplain from Broad Ripple through Butler-Tarkington. Many of these property owners have already seen their actual flood risk greatly reduced by the completed levee construction to the Riviera Club. With the completion of the entire project, they will get their mandated flood insurance ended, building restrictions lifted, and property values increased.

The difference between the Westfield wall and the river wall for these property owners is that with the Westfield wall, all benefits are completely paid for by the federal government, City government, and water rate payers. The City will pay maintenance of the levee for FEMA compliance forever.

A more elegant solution is to create a Special Flood Levee District that would include all benefitting properties from Broad Ripple through Rocky Ripple. Each property would be assessed a modest amount (much less than a flood insurance premium) that would pay the remaining share of capital construction costs as well as all of the annual maintenance costs. By paying a small cost, property owners would receive a large financial benefit from the levee. The Special Flood Levee District funding mechanism would assure that the infrastructure is maintained without dependence on City general tax or storm water fee revenues.

Not only is the river wall with the Special Flood Levee District by far the best option financially for the City, but it also prevents the loss of property values in Rocky Ripple caused by the Westfield wall itself, allows the same economic development in Rocky Ripple as its sister neighborhoods when all are out of the 100-year floodplain, and allows sustainable development at Butler University.

Achieving this option will not be easy. Asking people who are on track to receive a great financial benefit paid by others to instead share some of the costs in order that their neighbors could also benefit requires leadership across the community to appeal to people’s better nature.

If accomplished, it would be an achievement the Mayor could promote to other communities in Indiana as a model of innovative, fiscally responsible civic problem solving as they all face increasingly tough financial decisions for public works. The people who benefit from rising property values due to a public works project share part of the costs for its construction and ongoing maintenance. No one is left behind.

Bill Beranek, an environmental mediator with a Ph.D. in chemistry, has been engaged in water management projects in Indianapolis and Indiana since the 1980s.