The city of Granite Falls is no stranger to flooding. The Minnesota River that runs through town significantly flowed over its banks twice in recent memory - in 1997 and in 2001. Minor flooding has occurred in the years since and city officials have been working hard in recent years to develop projects to reduce damage in the event of a flood.
The potential for a spring flood this year remains probable. Rivers were already high because of heavy rains late in fall, and a snowy winter will further swell rivers as snowbanks begin to melt.
Current forecasts by the National Weather Service place the water level of the Minnesota River near Granite Falls at approximately 883 feet above sea level, well below the flood stage set at 888 feet.
"That's five feet below the flood stage level," City Manager Bill Lavin said.
Though water levels are manageable now, the potential for a spring flood still exists. During the most recent update from the National Weather Service, Lavin said the city was informed of a 70 percent chance the water levels could equal last years flood event, which peaked at 892.6 feet.
"Because the city has done so many things with flood mitigation, we are much better prepared than we ever have been," Lavin said. "But there are still challenges and you can never plan for every situation."
Since the flood of 2001, the city of Granite Falls has spent nearly $17 million and has made major improvements throughout the city to prevent widespread flooding should the waters rise.
In the last year, two levees have been strengthened to provide additional flood protection. A levee that runs behind businesses along U.S. Highway 212 was strengthened and a dike located near the quarry just outside of town was widened and raised.
The city council also approved the purchase of 150 Hesco bags and mud mats that will serve as a rapid deployment flood wall for houses along the flood-prone area of Prentice Street. The bags can be set up quickly and filled with sand by heavy equipment to create a flood barrier quicker than sandbagging, though Lavin said sandbagging is still an option.
"The challenge is, right now we don't have the flood barrier constructed that these bags would sit on," Lavin said, noting that there are some structures and landscaping that could get in the way of a deployment. "We would try to utilize the bags back there to whatever extent is feasible."
Construction on a permanent levy along Prentice Street is scheduled to begin this year.
In September, heavy rains uncovered another weak spot in the city's infrastructure: an aging sewer system. In the past, heavy rains and flooding has caused the city's sewer system to become overwhelmed and back up into people's homes. One of the city's main lines runs along Prentice Street.
"The flow carries well over two-thirds of the community into that line," Lavin said. "During flooding conditions, it gets surcharged and everything starts backing up."
A public hearing is scheduled on March 21 for a $2.1 million project that would upgrade the city's sewer system. Included in that amount is $400,000 to re-engineer the line along Prentice Street.
The Department of Natural Resources has agreed to pay half the costs of the Prentice Street section of the project using flood mitigation funds and the city plans to us bonding, assessments and a special levy to cover additional costs for the project.
Looking to spring, Lavin said the weather will play a big role in the likelihood of a flood. Ideally, a slow thaw and a fairly dry spring will mean less flooding.
"Best case is to continue having the weather that we've had where you've got a slower melt and cooler at night. That's ideal," Lavin said. "I don't know what the impact of this week's thaw has been, but I would have to think that it means something positive."