Afton has long needed to replace its failing levee to prevent flooding that comes from the St. Croix River and from a creek that flows down a bluff.

Now, there's progress as the city pursues a multi-million dollar plan to stay dry and address infrastructure problems.

Afton has bought one house and is in the process of buying two more from owners who agreed to sell in an area that floods when the river rises and there is significant rainfall, said Mayor Pat Snyder.

The houses will be razed or moved and Kelle's Creek will be allowed to flood in that area, rather than the city having to try to redirect it away from those houses, she said.

Currently, said City Engineer Diane Hankee, Kelle's Creek flows through a hole in the levee to the river. When the river rises, the hole is closed to prevent water coming inland. If there's significant rainfall, the creek floods houses behind the levee, she said.

The purchase of the houses on the south end of Afton is part of a $4.5 million remedy to water problems, with at least half the money coming from a grant from the state Department of Natural Resources.

"It's to improve the level of flood protection in the community," said Pat Lynch, who oversees such grants for the DNR. "The levee they have right now is not in good shape."

Inspections by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found the levee has lots of problems. It is made of sand that was never properly compacted, and water percolates through onto private property.

"It's not as if there is a catastrophe waiting to happen," Lynch said. "But they've got a levee system that's antiquated, that isn't up to standard, and like a lot of communities, they're doing something about it with assistance from the state."

The DNR Flood Hazard Mitigation grant will help build a new dike and stormwater lift station, drainage ponds and other improvements. It also will help property owners pay for new septic systems after they are removed from the levee, said Hankee. Nine private septic systems also are buried inside of it and must be removed, Hankee said.

The solutions are sorely needed in the community, which is to pay about $2.1 million in the next 10 or 20 years for the projects.

More grants are sought. But property owners are likely to pick up much of the tab, probably through special assessments and citywide taxes, Hankee said.

The measures will help revitalize the historic Old Village area, which needs many improvements, from flood mitigation to stormwater drainage to sanitary sewer upgrades.

One segment of the levee is on property owned by the city or where it has easements. The other portion is on the south end of Afton, on private property. The city needs to buy that property or get easements to make the improvements.

The city has closed on one house, bank-owned after a foreclosure, and finalized a purchase agreement on a second so far.

The city determined that it isn't cost effective to reconstruct part of the levee where the three homes are. A fourth homeowner was approached but didn't sell.

The levee is a sod-covered mound of sand built as an emergency measure during 1960s flooding.

Problem has several facets

Afton faces a three-pronged problem with water, said Molly Shodeen, a DNR hydrologist.

"They've got the river, they've got seepage under the dike, and they've got stormwater coming down the hills, which piles up on the landward side of the dike," she said.

"They've also got several septic systems in the dike. They have to fix all those problems in order to solve flooding issues in their downtown."

The water that percolates landward beneath the levee is being pumped back toward the river. Officials plan to use the grant to build a lift station.

The levee is not certified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but that will change.

Once the levee is reconstructed, property behind it will no longer be designated a floodplain, so property owners won't have to carry mandatory flood insurance. And building projects that had been prohibited can move ahead, officials said.

For Afton, there's much to be done with infrastructure, beyond the levee. In the Old Village, roads are more than 50 years old.

"The main issues are that nothing's been done in the village for a really long time," Hankee said. "All the roads are basically falling apart. There's no proper storm drainage in the city, and as a result, there's erosion."

In 2010, the city invited the community to tell officials what improvements they want.

People want a certified levee. They want "green" concepts, including rain gardens, for better stormwater drainage. And because there's no citywide sanitary sewer system, septic issues need to be addressed beyond those nine septic systems that must be dug out of the levee.

There are residential parcels not in the floodplain, for example, where owners are limited in what they can do because their lots are too small or have high groundwater.

"In the future," Hankee said, "there's potentially going to be some issues with what property owners can do with their septics."

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038