eBuzz: Town to Flat Creek residents: You’re on your own this winter

By on January 7, 2013
Flat Creek Restoration Project underway (Trout Unlimited)

Flat Creek Restoration Project underway (Trout Unlimited)

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The Town of Jackson will not mitigate Flat Creek flooding this winter. In a letter obtained by JH Weekly, Mayor Mark Barron recaps the 14-year battle the town has had trying to prevent certain trouble stretches of Flat Creek from freezing over and causing flooding along parts of the 3.5 miles that the creek flows through town limits.
Barron also stated that the department of public works would not be coming to the rescue of Flat Creek residents this winter because heavy equipment would not be able to access the creek without crossing private property and, to date, not enough residents have granted permission for such access.

“Without legal access to the creek, the Town cannot and will not remove deposits of frazil ice from Flat Creek this season,” Barron stated in the letter addressed to all Jackson residents affected by Flat Creek freezing/flooding.

At the end of last winter, town authorities openly said the rising costs of mitigating Flat Creek flooding had them questioning whether the Town of Jackson was under any obligation to clear the creek at all. Many residents along Flat Creek were insistent that the town should continue to help them out, even while some criticized the town for tearing up their property getting to the creek. One resident sued the town over the cost of replacing busted sprinkler heads.

Town officials may have found a way to wiggle out of the issue. A letter sent during the fall to residents asking permission to cross their lawns did not elicit enough positive responses for town machinery to move into place. The ultimate case of NIMBY has come back to bite Flat Creek flood victims. They may have frozen themselves out of any chance of rescue from the town.

The letter from the mayor follows in unalterted form:

Dear Town of Jackson Residents,

Flat Creek is a wonderful amenity that flows through our Town for approximately 3.5 miles in length and provides recreational opportunities, beautiful scenery and important habitat for trout and wildlife throughout the Town.

During winter, sections of the creek are subject to flooding from a condition known as ‘frazil ice”. I want to take this opportunity to speak to this issue and to discuss the Town’s policy position regarding frazil ice flooding and the protection of private property by the Town of Jackson.

Frazil ice occurs when water becomes super cooled in shallow, turbulent creeks. The super cooled water encourages the formation of small ice crystals (frazil ice). Although ice generally floats, frazil ice crystals are not buoyant and attach to the bottom of the channel. Because the ice builds up from the bottom of the creek bed, it displaces the water flow, raising the water level, and can cause damming and flooding. This phenomenon is very rare, occurring in only a handful of waterways in North America.

While the Town has no legal obligation to carry out extra ordinary measures to protect private property from flooding, the Town has, in the past, tried to assist private property owners along the creek.

In 1999/2000, the Town drilled three warm water wells, or “thaw wells,” on Town owned land to mitigate the formation of frazil ice. Ground water from the thaw wells has an ambient temperature of 46 degrees and, when discharged into the creek, retards the creation of frazil ice crystals. The warmer well water is diluted and cooled as it flows downstream and the effectiveness of the thaw wells varies. During winter conditions, thaw well effectiveness is roughly 1,000 feet, plus or minus, depending on weather and creek conditions.

The Town quickly realized that the three thaw wells could not protect the stretch of Flat Creek historically affected by winter flooding, so in 2001 the Town contracted with the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a comprehensive study of frazil ice and the associated flooding along Flat Creek. The Corp identified three approaches for preventing the formation of the frazil ice crystals: pumping warm water into the creek with additional thaw wells; installing floating boom systems; and the construction of rock weir structures.

The 2001 Corp study identified the need for an additional four thaw wells to make this approach effective. Because of the unwillingness of private property owners to grant the necessary easements, this approach was abandoned. The Town also reviewed the installation of floating boom systems, but could not obtain access to the land needed to clear the ice trapped on the boom systems. The Town pursued the only other available option by installing rock weir systems.

Due to the fact that the rock weirs and other measures greatly enhance the cutthroat trout, waterfowl habitat, and the overall health of Flat Creek, the Town, since 2003 has continued to partner with the Teton Conservation District to construct a series of weir systems. By deepening the creek and slowing water velocity, the weir structures, during most conditions, impede the formation of frazil ice. The increased depth of creek water allows shelf ice to form, covering and insulating creek water flows. The combination of the thaw wells and the rock weirs have not been completely effective towards mitigation of the historical ice flooding that occurs along sections of the creek, and private properties continue to be threatened. Over the past thirteen years, the Town has operated the thaw wells in many different ways, but in each year the Town has used heavy equipment to break up and remove ice to prevent flooding of homes and businesses along the creek.

In anticipation of the coming frazil ice season, the Town sent letters to property owners requesting permission to use private property to access the creek with heavy equipment to remove the ice. As of the date of this letter, we have not received enough positive responses from property owners to allow the Town to take affirmative action to deal with large deposits of ice. The Town cannot effectively access the creek without crossing private property.

Without legal access to the creek, the Town cannot and will not remove deposits of frazil ice from Flat Creek this season. For the foreseeable future, the Town of Jackson will continue to use the thaw wells and to rely on weirs to minimize the formation of frazil ice. 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.

During the coming weeks and months, the Town and the Teton Conservation District will explore the best approach for dealing with this exceptionally unusual natural phenomenon. On January 22nd, the Town Council will be discussing solutions to this ongoing problem with the Teton Conservation District. I encourage your participation in these discussions as they will have a long term impact on our community and this important natural resource.

Always best,

Mark Barron, Mayor

Town of Jackson

Reader Comments
The taxpayers should not pick up the tab for someone’s stupid decision to build in a flood zone. You want to live next to a creek, you pay the price. Same with fires in the national forest. We should not spend one dime protecting property in a fire zone. That’s why you buy insurance. Same with skiers in the backcountry, you’re on your own. Taxpayers shouldn’t come to your rescue.
End the handouts

What people are forgetting is that the bike path’s construction caused a lot of these flooding issues. I grew up in Creekside Village, my backyard facing where the first bike path bridge after the post office is located. When they created that bridge, they redirected the river at a sharper angle, causing the river to bend and flood. It’s why the big dirt hump that lines that area is there now. Our backyard flooded the first winter of that construction, and the hump was to prevent further flooding. The same thing happened to the bike path area near Crabtree Lane that floods every year. And what about all those boulder “water falls” that were constructed 5-6 years ago? Blame it on Frizid Ice all you want. It’s human error.

I’m with ya on the bridge, Andrew. That’s a messed up bend that may be a contributing factor. Of course, our rivers and creeks have been diverted and diked and dredged. Property owners that choose to live next to a creek are in a flood zone either way.

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