Seawall Project Protects Large Area

May 28, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Last week, after nearly two weeks of daily rain and several severe thunderstorms, the Grand River was swollen and more rain was forecast.

According to the National Weather Service, the river rose to 15.3 feet Sunday, May 23. The next day, it was at 16.7 feet and rising.

The river reached 19.5 feet Thursday, May 28, one-tenth inch below its crest in its flood of exactly a century ago. Upstream and downstream of Grand Rapids — in Comstock Park, Plainfield and Robinson Townships — flooding began weeks ago.

Luckily for central Grand Rapids, the Kent County Drain Commission and city of Grand Rapids in the year 2000 finished a six-year, $13 million project to improve and restore the river’s floodwalls and embankments.

The program involved 22 projects and incorporated a handful of other construction contracts.

“It was quite an extensive project within the city limits,” explained Rick DeVries of the City Engineer’s office.

“We extended the concrete floodwalls one foot over the 100-year flood, extended the earthen embankments, repaired existing floodwalls and put in pumping stations.”

The floodwall was originally created in response to legislation in the wake of the flood of 1904.

That flood began after steady rainfall caused the Grand River to overflow on March 24, 1904. By the morning of March 28, the river was marked at 19.6 feet, the highest recorded stage at that time by two feet.

More than half of the populated portion of the city’s West Side — a flood plane — was under water. The river submerged 2,500 homes and affected 14,000 people.

On the east side of the river, factories were inundated and the basements of about 300 businesses were closed.

The floodwall saw few improvements for most of the last century, but shortly after the river reached 19.2 feet in October of 1986, the city began plans to refurbish its flood protection.

“Not a whole lot was done until the late 1980’s,” DeVries said.

“The city thought it would be a good idea to extend (the floodwalls) up to protect downtown and some of the West Side. When you looked at what could potentially flood, it went all the way to John Ball Park.”

The city worked with the engineering firm Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber to plan eight contracts that stretched from Knapp Street NE to Market Avenue SW.

First, a broken and deteriorating wall on the west bank from the Sixth Street dam to Leonard Street was replaced.

Next, a backflow prevention system involving a series of storm sewer flap gates and relief sewers was built. Then, embankments were built on public land along both sides of the river.

“We had other projects at the time, like the Canal Street Park, and we were able to incorporate berms into the park,” DeVries said.

“We did the same thing at Ah-Nab-Awen Park in front of the (Gerald R.) Ford Museum. We did a neat design that basically made the outdoor amphitheater into a bowl.”

A similar design is seen on the jogging trail at Riverside Park.

Four pumping stations were added to prevent water from being trapped on the “dry” side of the floodwall at Palmer, Caledonia, Ann and Wealthy streets.

The last portion completed downtown was the east floodwall, not as worn as parts of the west bank. That restoration cost just under $2.2 million. In many places, rebar was added to the preexisting concrete structure.

The southern part of the river along Market Avenue, including Plaster Creek, also saw improvements.

“The wall is pretty substantial and (repair) is not done enough,” DeVries said. “But I don’t think anything will have to be done for awhile.”

The project cost taxpayers $13,292,783, a full $243,217 under budget. Ten different contractors were used.

The floodwall portions of the construction were performed on barges floating in the river, loaded up with materials each day and floated to the work site.

The project’s six-year time span was attributed in part to Department of Environmental Quality regulations.

Permits granted by the DEQ were date-specific and prohibited work during salmon runs and other ecological events.

As a historical footnote, when the city was first being developed, the affluent built their homes on the high ground of the east bank — what is now Heritage Hill and Belknap Lookout Hill. Those with lesser means built homes on the flood plane of the city’s West Side.    

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