Stormwater issues in Fitchburg/Oregon

In September 2018, Lake Barney had swelled to the point that much of the farmland to the south was overtaken by water, covering parts of the Rotary Bike Trail put in by the Village of Oregon in the process.

Town of Oregon resident John Brown lost around half of the income he could have pulled in from his cropland last fall because of standing water on his property.

To make matters worse, he paid $2,500 to raise the floor of his garage to prevent water from pushing up through the concrete, adding to the around $20,000 he had already spent to fill in four feet of his basement to prevent water seepage.

“Pretty much all of us in the area got hit real hard,” he told the Observer. “It’s been a nightmare.”

While area residents like Brown await long-term solutions, the Village of Oregon and the City of Fitchburg are taking steps to either help find those answers or be ready with better stormwater management infrastructure when it comes time to drain the area.

Fitchburg has commissioned a stormwater management study aiming to produce concepts to reduce flooding in the area. That study, to be conducted by Emmons and Olivier Resources, Inc., will seek at least two ways to mitigate the flooding.

In the Village of Oregon, improvements to culverts and stormwater infrastructure are being planned.

But both Brown and Fitchburg resident John Freiburger said they feel state Department of Natural Resources representatives have put up more barricades for draining the water than solutions.

Lake Barney, which sits near the top of the Badfish Creek Watershed, has grown from a 32-acre body 33 years ago to around 800 acres during times of heavy rains and has continued to cause problems for Fitchburg and Oregon residents. In addition to the individual costs to keep the water at bay, the glacial kettle has also put pressure on the water table, causing fields to flood and drowning out the roots of trees that predate the Revolutionary War.

And after years of flooding, figuring out how to drain the water safely without disrupting the areas downstream continues to be complicated because of who owns what land surrounding it, and where.

“The land itself is not the challenging part,” DNR water regulation engineer Uriah Monday said. “It’s the inclusion of all of the interested parties along the way.”

The affected areas include jurisdictions of Fitchburg and the town and village of Oregon, as well as protected federal Fish and Wildlife land managed by the state Department of Natural Resources and farmland owned by the state Department of Corrections.

Village of Oregon public works director Jeff Rau said the village wants to be ready whenever the lake water is drained out and comes downstream into the northern part of the village.

Flooding in the area has caused Netherwood Road to close down multiple times in the last two-and-a-half years, causing water issues for people living around Lerner Park.

“Everything from Lake Barney comes down to the head of Lerner Park at Cusick (Parkway) and really has nowhere to go,” he said.

Rau said the village is planning to create a channel running from Netherwood Road to the Oregon portion of the Badfish Creek and is looking at new outlets for the pond and culverts for Cusick Parkway to improve drainage.

“We’re working on our part to do what we can to help problems in that area,” he said.

Monday said he understands the frustration of residents but the department’s role is not to come up with solutions. Rather, he and water regulation and zoning specialist Weston Matthews are part of the conversation to offer guidance and make sure any solutions brought forward by the group of municipalities and homeowners are able to be carried out and meet environmental standards.

“It’s been good to sit in and listen to some of the ideas that the different entities have for solving the problem,” he said. “It seems like people have been exploring different routes, different ways to do this, whether it’s going to be a straight-shot ditch or it’s going to be what I would call waterway enhancements.”

Some residents had hoped to alleviate some of the issues this year by reducing the height of the lake by creating a ditch, but that plan hit snags because of the cost to residents.

Freiburger said the hope was to be able to knock two feet off of the lake level, which sits at around 948 feet above sea level, or about six and a half feet too high. But the DNR has asked residents to pay for a survey of the surrounding wetlands, and Freiburger said the agency might ask for as much as $720,000 for remediation of the area, which he called “absolutely ridiculous.” As a result, he said it’s still possible nothing gets done this year and residents will have to turn to the municipalities for help.

Freiburger said other state entities, such as Fish and Wildlife and Corrections, are taking a different role in the process by offering solutions and are wanting to get the land back to a point where it’s sustainable for crops and animal habitats.

“(The ditch) would help a great deal,” Freiburger said. “Our major problem is the DNR.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.