Mitigating Stormwater Issues through Smart Design

Bee Branch Creek Restoration Project is a creative, environmentally-friendly solution to stormwater mitigation saves homes and money while enhancing the community

By Jack Simpson

This past year has seen some of the most disastrous extreme weather events in United States history. From wildfires ravaging the West, to an unprecedented number of hurricanes hammering the East and South, the country has suffered numerous blows to its already substandard, deteriorating infrastructure. Over a two-month span, from mid-August until mid-September, a record number of six consecutive hurricanes made landfall, causing over $300 billion in damages. Harvey alone caused nearly $200 billion in damages related mostly to flooding, as well as taking 90 lives. However, the damage caused by these storms has not been restricted to the areas in which they have made landfall.

As weather patterns continue to change, and larger, more intense rainstorms happen more frequently across the country, areas that have historically experienced stormwater and runoff problems face even greater challenges. One such area is the city of Dubuque, Iowa. Much of the city is built upon the watershed of the Bee Branch Creek, a creek which runs alongside several residential neighborhoods and commercial districts in before dumping into the Mississippi River. The watershed is prone to flash flooding and the location of the city makes is especially susceptible to damage.

The Bee Branch Creek Restoration Project is a much-needed update to the historically flood-prone city of Dubuque.

“Approximately 50 percent of Dubuque’s residents live or work within the watershed,” according to Deron Muehring, project engineer, of the The Bee Branch Creek Restoration Project. “The Bee Branch Watershed contains a significant share of the City of Dubuque and Dubuque County’s economic activity. There are 1,300 businesses employing over 16,000 full‐time equivalent workers. This accounts for roughly 20 percent of the businesses and almost 30 percent of the full‐time equivalent workers in Dubuque County. The frequent and severe flash flooding has caused a disinvestment to occur to commercial, industrial and residential properties within the Bee Branch Watershed.”

The Bee Branch Creek Restoration Project is a much-needed update to the historically flood-prone city of Dubuque. The project, which began with the Lower Bee Branch section in 2010, completed in November 2011, and continued with the Upper Bee Branch section (now known as the Bee Branch Creek Greenway), in June 2015, completed in July 2017, “was initiated in response to current needs,” said Muehring. “However, the engineering design takes into account the recent increased frequency of high-intensity, short duration storms. Moreover, the creek itself as designed has the capability of safely conveying runoff from the 500-year rainstorm through town.”

The project, which began with the Lower Bee Branch section in 2010, completed in November 2011, and continued with the Upper Bee Branch section (now known as the Bee Branch Creek Greenway), in June 2015, completed in July 2017.

In order to complete such a large project, numerous considerations needed to be made in terms of planning and design. And because the creek happens to run through so many neighborhoods and businesses, it was imperative that those plans would not further impact the local community. “To accomplish this, the City relied on the work of a 16-member citizen advisory committee, said Muehring. “They established the criteria to be used in order to score potential creek alignments. For example, their top priority was to maintain local services – don’t go through the only neighborhood grocery store. Through a series of meetings over eight months, they recommended an alignment that was ultimately adopted by the City Council.”

Ultimately, it was determined that “day-lighting” an old sewer system was the best approach to mitigating stormwater issues in the area. The sewer system, which at nearly a mile long was too narrow to handle surging runoff, was unearthed and widened into a channel resembling the creek and floodplain as it would have existed in its natural state some 100 years ago. Not only did day-lighting prove to be the most affordable solution, it provided additional environmental benefits as well. As a result of reconnecting the Upper and Lower sections – thereby increasing the size of the body of water – several species of fish have been reintroduced to the creek, improving biodiversity and the local fishing along with it.

Thanks to the creative problem solving and combined efforts of the Dubuque City Council and City staff, numerous state and federal agencies and the citizens themselves, Dubuque can expect great things of its unique approach to its stormwater issues. “Because of the stormwater management elements implemented in this project and other phases of the Bee Branch Watershed Flood Mitigation project, the City of Dubuque anticipates saving an estimated $582 million in damages over the 100-year design life of this project,” according to Kelly Noel Rasmussen of Strand Associates, Inc. “These savings – which will be realized through fewer flood-related emergency response activities, fewer necessary infrastructure repairs after flood events, and reduced debris clean-up and removal – more than make up for the $219 million price tag of the various improvements.”

Jack Simpson is an Editorial Assistant for American Infrastructure magazine. He may be reached at jack@penpubinc.com.

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