It's a startling sight for anyone living near a lake or river: murky, brown stormwater spilling over aging levees and flooding roads, homes and businesses.
With that scenario in mind, Afton has embarked on a $10.5 million flood control project to upgrade levees, reroute some sewage pipes and modernize the city's crumbling roads. All in the name of protecting its historic downtown, made up of a handful of artsy shops and restaurants, from being inundated by the St. Croix River.
Ronald Moorse, the city's administrator, said the Old Village is considered in a 100-year flood zone, a designation that carries stricter building codes and a requirement that property owners buy flood insurance. The flood plain is roughly bordered by City Hall to the north, St. Croix Trail to the west and River Road to the south.
Moorse said engineers will strengthen and raise the existing earthen levee, built in the 1960s, about 3 feet to meet federal standards. He said he hoped the upgrade would be done in 2016, coinciding with the completion of a Washington County-financed $6.5 million overhaul of St. Croix Trail S., also called County Road 21, the main thoroughfare through the downtown area.
Once the levee is deemed insurance-certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, residents and business owners will no longer be required to obtain flood insurance.
"People may decide to continue having flood insurance, just in the off chance that there may be a major, major flood and the cost of that would be significantly less expensive," Moorse said. "And if you're in the flood plain you can't make improvements to your property that are more than 50 percent of the value of the property. You can't really do substantial expansion because you're just creating more opportunity for flood damage."
To make way for the levee project, the city announced plans to raze three homes in the flood plain it bought for $600,000 and build a stormwater treatment facility on a recently acquired swath of land.
The plan also calls for the removal of nine private septic tanks buried in the levee that come "in direct contact with floodwaters," city officials said.
"The other important ingredient of this is to plan how all of this is staged. Like I said, to figure how we can do things together in a coordinated way so we're not duplicating, so we can save some money, but also so we can limit the amount of disruption, particularly for the businesses," Moorse said in his second-story office at City Hall.
The flood management project will cost $10.5 million, $3.5 million of which will come from a state Department of Natural Resources grant, officials said. The city will fund its share through assessments on properties in the flood plain and private loans and other grants.
The project was the result of an Army Corps of Engineers report that concluded the city's existing flood defenses were inadequate.
This comes as no surprise to Rich Myhers, whose property is battered every few years by raging floodwaters. During those times, the river, swollen by snowmelt and ice jams, floods the Old Village. Whenever that happens, Myhers and a group of volunteers take shifts manning temporary pumps to help lower the water levels.
"I have a very nice green lawn in the spring, but it's not sanitary," Myhers said.