With multiple flooding events between 1978 and 2010, the City of Austin, Minnesota — located in at the confluence of the Cedar River, Turtle Creek and Dobbins Creek — has long-experienced the effects of rapid river rise and devastating floods. Yet the City is also a case story of success in floodplain management and flood mitigation. How have they done it?
Following the Austin floods of 1978, the City used a first-of-its-kind Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant to purchase flood-damaged homes. To this day, the City continues with the voluntary acquisition of repetitive flood-damaged properties through multiple grant and funding avenues.
Austin is also active in FEMA’s Community Rating System and is one of very few communities with a Class 5 rating, which means Austin residents receive a 25% reduction in flood insurance premiums.
However, on Sept. 15, 2004, no one was prepared for the Cedar River to overflow its banks and crest over 25 feet, resulting in the largest flood in Austin’s history. The 2004 flood waters reached four feet above North Main Street — which is the gateway to downtown and home to several vital commercial businesses and residential properties.
The 2004 flood affected several commercial properties including the Hormel Foods Flagship Plant which employs 1,550 people and processes 19,000 hogs per day. Other major businesses in the area include Quality Pork Processors (employs 1,400 people), APC Food Packaging (employs 275 people), and the Mayo Medical Center, which hosts 6,000 patient visits per year. Additional commercial and retail businesses were affected, and numerous area residences were severely damaged or destroyed.
The major economic and social impacts of the 2004 flood prompted community leaders to begin a large-scale planning effort to protect Austin’s downtown area from future floods along the Cedar River. The resulting flood risk management plan included the 12-Phase North Main Flood Control project (see graphic above). In total, the 12 phases would include numerous flood mitigation projects over several years and cost millions to complete.
At the same time, community leaders began work on a plan to fund the City’s long-term flood mitigation efforts over a 20-year period. The city secured $5 million in federal grants, $3 million from the Minnesota DNR and introduced a referendum that called for a .5 cent tax on goods and services in the City of Austin dedicated to flood mitigation efforts.
In 2007, City leaders and the community passed a local option sales tax and received permission from the state legislature to move forward on Austin’s structural flood mitigation plans. Since that time, the City has completed numerous flood mitigation projects along Austin’s Cedar River. The City was also instrumental in forming the Cedar River Watershed District to address larger watershed wide issues.
Fast-forward to 2013 and the City had begun work on the North Main Invisible Floodwall project — a high-profile, invisible flood wall and road raise project. Nearly completed, this project represents one of the final phases in the push to help mitigate flooding along the Cedar River at the entrance to Austin’s downtown area.
In 2015, the City worked on the final phase of the North Main Flood Control project, which includes structural flood protection projects around the decommissioned Austin Municipal Utilities downtown plant and projects from the Hope Street Lift Station floodwall through Lions Park.
There’s still more work to be done. But City leaders and community members report that their flood control efforts are paying off. Rains and high-water events have resulted in little to no damage to areas along the Cedar River and Austin’s downtown area, providing greater stability for the existing commercial businesses and peace of mind for area residents.
Flood control efforts have also translated to more future opportunities for new businesses and residential developments. City leaders and the community are standing at the precipice of an improved social and economic outlook in the City of Austin.
Brad Woznak, PE, CFM is a Project Manager and Lead Hydraulic Engineer at SEH. Brad has helped clients prepare for more resilient futures through hydraulic and hydrologic analysis, watershed modeling, and floodplain analyses. Contact Brad