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From flood to good

Kylee Wittwer and her dad, James Witwer, ride their bikes along the concrete and rock banks of the Zumbro River in downtown Rochester. Shortly after the 1978 flood a massive flood control project reshaped the river and our experience with it.

A year before floodwater ravaged Rochester — leaving five dead and $75 million in damages — city officials had a plan in hand to prevent such a disaster.

The worst flood in Rochester’s history, however, propelled the issue into the national spotlight and provided access to the $115 million that was eventually used to channel potential floodwater to reservoirs. On Thursday and Friday, the city will mark 40 years since one of Rochester’s signature historic events.

"That 1978 flood opened the door in so many ways," said Darrell Strain, a former Rochester City Council member, who won election on a push for flood control as early as 1969.

The flood started with storms on July 5, 1978, and water hit its peak by noon July 6, but the impact lingered as residents struggled to recover.

In addition to spurring national interest, the flood stirred local interest in creating protections that would eventually transform the city’s waterfront.


State and local support increased for what was a unique option for funding the required 25 percent local match.

The 1 percent local sales tax approved in 1983 also helped fund construction of the $16 million Mayo Civic Center Arena, but flood control was the biggest driver, with 71 percent of voters supporting the project.

"They owned it after they decided to tax themselves, so it was a good buy-in," Strain said of residents’ decision to increase the local sales tax.

Along with new controls, the project also brought amenities many take for granted today, such as paths and other amenities near the Zumbro River’s edge and reservoirs surrounded by parkland, such as Chester Woods and Willow Creek Golf Course.

"The project was originally designed to be riprap channels, much wider in some locations," said former Rochester Assistant City Administrator Gary Neumann said, who noted recreational aspects of the project have become a city asset.

Four decades after the historic flood forced approximately 5,000 residents from their homes, some worry memories of the devastation could fade. There have been pushes to further engage the river as Destination Medical Center brings new development to Rochester’s core.

One of the most recent proposals was made in connection with the Bloom project planned for the west side of the Zumbro, across from the city-county Government Center. Early designs sought to modify elements of the flood control walls to better engage the water.

Mike Nigbur, Rochester’s park and forestry division head, said city staff quickly sought to squelch the idea.


"We engaged them pretty early on in the design phase," he said, noting he was a 13-year-old Rochester resident when the historic flood hit the city and remembers the aftermath.

Other proposals have called for finding ways to add more water to the downtown channel. In 2014, DMC planners said it could be done, but Nigbur noted any changes must be considered with caution.

That doesn’t mean the city isn’t looking at ways to improve engagement with the water. Nigbur said the city has identified three potential sites to improve access to the Zumbro River, but nothing is definite at this point.

Strain said he likes the idea of finding new ways to use the river, but as someone who lived through the devastation, he also said safety should be the priority.

Neumann echoed the concern. "The design of a flood-control project is to move water and primarily protect lives, safety and property," he said. "That was the way the project was designed."

The design was based on rainfall data from the 1960s, as well as the 1978 flood, but Matt Crawford, a project development manager with Rochester Public Works, said newer data has emerged, showing past estimates were low.

Still, he said the existing controls should continue to keep the city safe, as they have for 40 years, as long as the infrastructure is maintained.

Neumann said the importance of maintaining the system’s integrity is something that needs to mentioned from time to time. He said he’s frequently reminded newcomers that the city’s topography makes it prone to flooding, since all the water would naturally flow to the center of the city without the existing controls.


"With the project in place, people haven’t seen what the water can do and what it did in ‘78," he said.

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