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Funding problems could affect levee construction

Residents chaff over temporary berm, costs

May 19, 2011
By Josh Moniz - Staff Writer ( , The Journal

NEW ULM - Progress in the City of New Ulm's efforts to construct a permanent levee along the Minnesota River was limited by uncertainty over state funding Wednesday. In addition, residents began voicing their discontent over the temporary berm.

Primarily, the meeting comprised of a rehashing of the Flood Mitigation Study, which was drawn up by Bolton & Menk, Inc. in order to finalize the details. City councilors attended and Bolton & Menk consulting engineer Duane Hansel gave the presentation.

The only significant change since February has been the determination that building the levee to Army Corps of Engineers specifications would be too costly for the City. Several residents had previously expressed their interest in the City obtaining the certification so that they would no longer be required to carry flood insurance.

The rest of the presentation reviewed the study, which deems the levee an economic necessity for New Ulm. In previous years, major floods have cost the City an average of $300,000 each time.

The proposed levee would extend along the river from 9th South Street to 19th South Street. The levee's height would be 814 feet above sea level, with a 12-foot top width and a 4-foot horizontal to 1-foot vertical slope.

The levee is designed to be flexible in its construction. Four segments can be built in any order and at any time based on the City's need. However, it is costlier to build the segments independently.

The expected total cost of just the levee is $1.9 million. Planned financing for the levee focuses on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource's Flood Damage Reduction Grant, which would cover 50 percent of the cost.

After the presentation, the Council briefly discussed future steps. However, uncertainty over this year's state funding hindered the Council's in-depth planning. The issue was that funding for the DNR grant is derived from state bonding. This year is not a bonding year, and the Republican-controlled Legislature has rejected calls for a flood bonding bill.

"We're essentially locked in on the grant with the DNR," said City Manager Brian Gramentz, "If the DNR had its own funding, we would be set. But, since it's dependent on the Legislature, we have to wait and see."

Gramentz said that there was a bill working through the Legislature that specifically funded flood relief. But, he explained, if the funding doesn't reach the DNR, the City will have to wait until July of 2012 for the bonding funds. He said that would be too late for construction to begin, which means the levee wouldn't be built until 2013.

"The timing on the funding is very important," said Gramentz.

Some points that the Council did discuss were the challenge in determining whether a special assessment could be applied to the levee for increased property value, and the conditions for obtaining an easement of the area the levee would occupy.

Gramentz said the consideration of special assessments was nowhere near determination because of the complexity of showing the value. He said that it would likely take a considerable amount of time before a determination could be made.

The discussion of the easements, however, drew stern comments from residents. Several people told the council they were against allowing people to walk on the levee.

Mike Hasse, of 1229 S. Front St., said he would not sign an easement agreement unless it forbid the levee from being used for a trail or a path.

Another major point of discussion was what would be done with the temporary berm that was constructed this year. The City has not decided whether it will remove it. The concern is that if the levee cannot be constructed before next spring, the temporary berm could be needed for to prevent future flooding. A contributing factor was whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would require that the berm be removed in order for the City to access flood relief funds this year.

Currently, the City expects to use the clay in the berm for the construction of the permanent levee, regardless of whether it is taken down and stored.

Several residents who spoke, along with an informal hand-raising survey by the Council, revealed that the majority of residents wished to have the berm removed.

Complaints by residents varied from how high it was to how it blocked their access to their backyards.

Hasse crystalized the complaints by demanding that he had a right to access his backyard.

Councilor Ruth Ann Webster responded by noting that Hasse was among the loudest voices clamoring for the berm earlier this year.

The meeting concluded with the decision to continue the discussion in June when the Council would be approving the finalized Flood Mitigation Study. The reasoning was that the Legislature would be Availability of funds might be more certain at that time, which would allow the City to better plan.

(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at



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