‘Tiger Dams’ provide Jefferson Chalmers with f...

‘Tiger Dams’ provide Jefferson Chalmers with flooding solution — for now

Above Lakewood between Scripps and Harbor Island on May 22, 2020. Photo By Demetrio Nasol.

“A little bit unattractive, but it’s better.. than the sandbags.”

That’s how Detroit General Services Department Project Manager Crystal Perkins described the water-filled ‘Tiger Dams’ that are now being installed throughout Jefferson Chalmers in an attempt to control floodwaters. At a Wednesday press conference, Perkins said the city was about 85% percent finished with the project, which will install Tiger Dams across more than 350 properties at a cost of $3.5 million in the far eastside neighborhood that borders Grosse Pointe Park.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan touted the dams as a “temporary solution” to the problem of record high water levels on the Great Lakes inundating the low-lying neighborhood regularly for the past several years.  Although water levels on Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River make Detroit’s waterfront Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood especially vulnerable, Duggan said, “If you see the damage being done by flooding in other parts of the state, I think you’ll agree that what we did was right.”

Sandbags in Jefferson Chalmers on April 28, 2020. Photo by Amy Sacka

Things could certainly be worse in Jefferson Chalmers right now. Last year, widespread flooding covered Scripps Street from Lakewood to Ashland. This street runs alongside one of the neighborhood’s canals and connects to the Detroit River. Water also backed up onto several adjoining streets and Ashland saw widespread flooding coming in from the Fox Creek. The city and residents scrambled to stem the flood with 400,000 sandbags with only minimal success. The sandbags cost $700,000, according to City of Detroit Press Secretary Nicole Simmons.

Simmons said that treating the flood water itself as it drained through the city’s sewer systems cost the city an additional $8 million. She said those costs went toward collecting the river water through basins, transporting it, processing and storing it at the Conner Creek Combined Sewer Overflow Facility, and then treating it at the Water Resource Recovery Facility before releasing it back into the Detroit River. The costs also included making sure the basins and combined sewer lines were clear and flowing by having Detroit Water and Sewer Department crews in the area for several weeks.

The only problem with the Tiger Dams mentioned by Duggan on Wednesday was their bright orange color, something he said he received complaints about. But Planet Detroit heard a different story from residents who were frustrated by property damage from the installation of the temporary structures, along with concerns about poor communication between those installing the dams and residents. Some also mentioned the high costs of the temporary effort, money they feel might be better directed towards permanent solutions like installing or fixing seawalls.

Fox Creek in Jefferson Chalmers on April 28, 2020. Photo by Amy Sacka

Ericka Sloan, who lives on Ashland Street, wrote a letter to Detroit City Council reporting that residences have had fences chain-sawed through and doors sandbagged shut. Sloan–who had recently installed a seawall on her property–said she received a note from the city saying that she needed to “maintain 10 -foot clearance from seawall” presumably for installation of the dams. However, city workers didn’t reach out to her directly.

“What would probably be the best solution is for the city to help find someone to come here and do everybody’s properties and pick the height that they want everything to be at,” she said. “And while I’m sure the city can’t afford to do everyone’s seawall, I think by just getting someone here doing a bunch of them at the same time they could surely go for a much lower rate.”

In an attempt to avoid the destruction of her property for a temporary dam that she didn’t need, Sloan says she reached out to the city but received little response. “Eventually, I just walked down the street and started talking to the project managers,” she says. 

A dam was installed next to her property to compensate for her neighbor’s inadequate sea walls. But the scenario illustrates the inconsistent nature of communication between residents and city workers or contractors. It also shows the difficulty of installing a patchwork of flood protections quickly in a neighborhood where the mayor says 20% to 25% of properties lack proper sea walls. And, of course, all of this is happening in the midst of disease pandemic that can make in-person communication difficult or even dangerous.

Blake Grannum, who lives with her mother on Scripps Street, said the city placed a Tiger Dam across her property–even though her sea wall is in good condition–and it funneled water from her neighbor’s property into her yard, effectively negating any benefit from the structure. 

“I’m not trying to knock the city and everybody’s trying to do the best they can, they’re dealing with COVID-19 right now besides this,” Grannum told Planet Detroit. But, she adds, “they should definitely be reaching out more and having more communication.” She also wonders if the city could be spending its money more wisely and helping residents out with low-interest loans for sea walls rather than temporary dams that will be removed in the fall.

It’s doubtful any more permanent solution would have been possible between last year’s record high waters and this year’s even higher ones. Sea wall contractors have had more work than they can keep up with in Metro Detroit and Sloan says that it “was literally the hardest thing to find someone to come to this neighborhood and even give you a quote on a seawall.”

Fox Creek in Jefferson Chalmers on April 28, 2020. Photo by Amy Sacka

When Planet Detroit asked the city about the reported issues, Simmons responded in an email that the installation was communicated to residents via community meetings and door-to-door literature. 

“Fences have been cut back or removed to make a path for the Tiger Dams to be laid.  This was communicated to the residents at community meetings,” Simmons wrote in an email. “In addition, an order was issued by the Buildings, Safety, Engineering, and Environmental Department for residents to clear a pathway prior to our arrival.  If such pathways were not cleared, our team had to make the path in order to complete the dam installation. We have not been made aware of any damage to residential property.”

For now, the Tiger Dams seem to be mostly doing what they’re supposed to do as waters continue to rise in Lake St. Clair, which meets the Detroit River right at Jefferson Chalmers. Yet, the water level in St Clair is 8 inches higher than it was at this point last year and likely to get higher, according to Deanna Apps from the U.S. Army Corps Detroit District. This rise that is expected to last until the end of June or the beginning of July and could continue to test the Tiger Dam system. 

If there’s any good news on water levels, it’s that the heavy rains and flooding around Midland that contributed to the Edenville Dam collapse on Wixom Lake aren’t likely to affect water levels much in Detroit. “It’s quite a bit for inland lakes and rivers,” Apps says, “…but as water works its way into the Great Lakes system, it’s not very noticeable.”

As for the future, Simmons said the city is considering options.

‘There are several options that we can consider for a permanent solution,” she wrote in an email. “These can range from enforcing repairing of the seawalls or exploring the options of fixtures that can be placed in the canal.”

– Nina Misuraca Ignaczak contributed reporting to this piece

Brian Allnutt is a writer living in Detroit. He covers open space, environmental justice, food and gardening.