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Jackson to stop fighting floods
Owners won’t grant access, leaving no way for the town to deal with winter ice flooding.
By Benjamin Graham, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: January 9, 2013
It looks like the town of Jackson won’t be coming to the rescue of residents living near Flat Creek if flooding occurs this winter.
The town wants permission from property owners to cross private land with heavy machinery but hasn’t received the commitment needed, Mayor Mark Barron wrote in a letter last week and addressed to the pubic. To break up ice in the creek and stop flooding, access is vital.
“Until such time that the town is granted legal access to Flat Creek from private property owners, the town will not be using equipment to remove ice dams and obstructions,” Barron wrote.
It’s a matter of liability, he said Tuesday.
The town sent contractors with backhoes to the creek’s banks last winter. The effort helped alleviate the flooding brought on by freezing temperatures and ice build-up.
But heavy equipment damaged some property. Irrigation systems were broken and trees downed.
It’s a financial risk for the town not to have permission, Barron said.
Landowners along the creek have hesitated to commit.
The town of Jackson public works department sent 40 letters last month to owners along the creek asking for access to the waterway.
Included with the letter was a right-of-entry agreement. It would have absolved the town of responsibility for damage to private property.
Three owners signed the agreement, while five said they wouldn’t. The rest did not answer, Town Manager Bob McLaurin said.
The poor response led to the town’s decision.
“The fact of the matter is, the town has no responsibility to control the natural flooding phenomenon of the creek and to protect the homes and businesses along creek,” Barron said Tuesday. “Without private property access, we’re not going to bang our heads against the wall.”
The town spent $18,000 last winter on flood mitigation work after budgeting only $2,500.
Another $2,500 was paid to Darrell Hawkins because a backhoe crushed his sprinkler system.
Hawkins, who owns a house on Shelby Lane that he rents, has supported the town’s efforts. But he didn’t sign the agreement that would allow crews to cross his yard this winter.
He said it was too vague.
“I felt very torn and very conflicted with not giving them permission,” Hawkins said. “I want to be a good neighbor and I want to be supportive.”
But the agreement would have absolved the town of too much responsibility, he said.
If the town were negligent in some way and a tenant was somehow hurt, who would be culpable,? Hawkins asked.
“It looked like a blanket indemnification,” he said.
Last winter, 6 inches of icy water pooled in Hawkins’ garage. His tenants tried to stop the flow with sandbags, but the water kept coming.
Only after the town sent backhoes to the creek’s banks did the tide begin to recede and for that Hawkins was grateful.
“My chestnuts were pulled out of the fire last year by the town of Jackson,” he said. “I feel like I owe the town something.”
He said he would like to discuss the agreement and the specific places the town wants to reach on the creek.
But town staff couldn’t say exactly how many or which properties would be needed for access, just that the disturbance would be widespread.
“Ideally I think you need everybody” or at least a significant majority to cooperate, McLaurin said.
The problem is that when the ice dams are broken the chunks flow downstream and cause the same problem again.
“You break it up and you don’t get all of it and it flows down and sticks under a bridge somewhere else,” McLaurin said.
Theoretically, you have to chase the ice all the way to the Snake River, he said.
Still, town officials are open to hearing from residents. They plan to discuss the issue at a workshop later this month.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Barron said. “I would imagine that perhaps property owners along the creek could have a change of heart.”
The town has helped fight flooding on Flat Creek with heavy machinery each winter for more than a decade.
Regardless of whether that practice continues, the town still will employ thaw wells to warm the creek and rock weirs to keep it flowing.
But those methods are marginally effective at best, Barron said.
“It is a guessing game more than a science,” he said.
The town drilled three wells on public property in 1999 and 2000. The town pumps 46-degree groundwater into the creek, but the wells are effective only about 1,000 feet downstream.
The Army Corps of Engineers recommended that four more be installed, but the town hasn’t been able to gain easements from landowners to do so.
The one respite for residents along the creek is that the flood risk appears to be minimal in 2013.
“The good news is the creek is doing very well this year, which is surprising considering the cold weather we’ve had,” McLaurin said.