City reduces flood risk

Homeowners are getting additional breaks on their flood insurance rates thanks to City of Ashland efforts to reduce the risk of flooding.

People living in floodplains were already saving 10 percent on premiums because of Ashland's ranking in the National Flood Insurance Program's Community Rating System. Now the savings have been boosted to 15 percent because the city moved up a level.

Earlier this month, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials commended city officials for their work.

Cities that participate in the rating system not only reduce rates for homeowners, but limit future economic losses by lowering flood risk and preparing for those floods that do occur, said Mark Carey, director of FEMA's Mitigation Division.

Only about 1,000 communities nationwide participate in the rating system, FEMA officials said.

After the 1997 New Year's Flood caused $4.5 million in damages, city officials stepped up efforts to prevent future floods even as they worked to restore Ashland.

One of the most significant improvements was replacing the twin culverts under Winburn Way at the entrance to Lithia Park with an arching, open bottom bridge. The culverts clogged with mud, rocks and root wads during the flood, causing Ashland Creek to spill out from its channel and pour through the downtown Plaza, said Ashland Public Works Director Paula Brown.

"The '97 flood taught us a lot, mostly about how quickly a creek can change," she said.

The city also replaced the Water Street bridge and has plans for replacing other bridges over Ashland Creek, Brown said.

If another major flood hits, and the bridges clog, the city has identified contractors with cranes and other pieces of heavy equipment who can aid city crews in removing the jams, she said.

"Most people want to be part of the solution," Brown said. "Contractors, city crews and other people want to make a difference."

City officials made other hidden improvements to the stormwater system. The underground system of pipes that carries water off roads, parking lots and other surfaces usually goes unnoticed by residents &

until something goes wrong.

Pipes that could handle water from 15-year flood events were replaced with larger pipes that could carry water from 25-year flood events, Brown said.

The larger pipes also allow water to slow down and pool rather than gushing out into creeks overloaded by heavy rainfall or rapid snowmelt. New detention ponds also hold water, reducing flooding and allowing sediment to settle, she said.

While Ashland Creek and Bear Creek are the most visible streams in town, the city is also laced with smaller streams like Hamilton, Neil, Clay and Tolman Creeks. That means Ashland has nearly 200,000 acres of floodplains and 330 pieces of property that are partially or entirely within floodplains, according to an October letter city officials sent to hundreds of homeowners.

Floodplain development restricted

Outreach efforts like that letter were another reason that the city improved its score on the rating system and won a flood insurance premium reduction, said Ashland Assistant Planner Amy Anderson.

The letter offered detailed information on how people could reduce flood risk, ranging from not dumping debris into ditches or streams, to obeying city land use rule.

"No new development is allowed in the floodplain, only up to the floodplain line," Anderson said.

The first floor of a new home has to be certified as being at least two feet above the flood line before the city will issue a permit allowing the home to be occupied, the letter said.

Anderson said several new subdivisions around town have preserved open space around creeks.

Leaving floodplains undisturbed has numerous benefits, including allowing flood water to dissipate, reducing erosion and flood risk downstream and boosting groundwater supplies, according to the city letter.

At the Meadowbrook subdivision on Fair Oaks Drive off North Mountain Avenue, a long lawn area, a cattail-lined pond, brush and trees separate new homes and empty lots from Bear Creek.

Killdeer scurry across the lawn and then burst into brief flight as they trill out their distinctive calls. Uphill from the subdivision, deer trot across the street as they wander between Meadowbrook and North Mountain Park.

The floodplain has been left as open space, which does mean developers can't build and sell homes there, said Dave DeCarlow, project manager for North Mountain Land Company and DeCarlow Homes.

But home buyers have been most interested in the lots closest to the lawn and natural area, he said.

"The thing that attracted those people to those lots was the park across the street with all that open space. It's a balancing act between the restrictions of the floodplain balanced with attracting people to those lots. The restrictions are offset by making it a more attractive location," DeCarlow said.

Looking toward the future

The city's installation of a warning system to alert residents and tourists of an unlikely break in Hosler Dam also improved Ashland's flood risk rating, Anderson said.

The dam holds back Reeder Reservoir, source of the city's drinking water, high above Lithia Park in the Ashland Watershed.

City employees, from those in the Public Works Department to members of Ashland Fire Rescue, take part in table-top and on-the-ground simulations of disasters, Brown said.

As for the future, global warming experts predict that Southern Oregon could see more flooding.

Warmer winter temperatures would increase the risk of rain-on-snow events that can trigger abrupt melting and floods, said Bob Doppelt, a member of Gov. Ted Kulongoski's Climate Change Integration Group.

Prolonged rain and early snowmelt caused creeks to rise to 100-year flood levels during Ashland's 1997 flood, according to the city letter sent to floodplain area residents.

The average January temperature in Medford has already risen four degrees from 1930 to 2005, said Roger Hamilton, director of the Climate Leadership Initiative's Local Community Climate Program and a wind energy consultant.

Brown said rare, large floods that occur on average every 100 years could happen more frequently, while the number of smaller floods could also rise.

"What we probably will see is that increase," she said.

That means city officials and residents will have to continue their efforts to stay prepared for a flood at any time, Brown said.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or

See letter from City of Ashland to residents regarding flood control efforts.(/2007/1116/stories/1116_flood_efforts.php)

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