Neighbors question city’s effort to stop Johnson Creek flooding

There’s no question whether or not this creek, which runs from Gresham to the Willamette River, floods. But find out why some outer SE Portland residents are concerned about the city’s plans …

Dale Guldenzopf shows the group, gathered at an empty lot owned by the City of Portland in Lents, a floodplain map from the 1940s. “I live next door. I have to pay for flood insurance, but I’m not even in the floodplain,” Guldenzopf says.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The group that gathers in an empty lot owned by the City of Portland in Lents on SE 108th Avenue keeps growing, as a meeting called by the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) gets underway on August 23.

The meeting’s topic: The East Lents Floodplain Restoration Project.

BES Johnson Creek project manager Maggie Skenderian points out the location of the property on which this meeting is taking place in Lents.

“This project will reduce flood damage in Lents,” says the Johnson Creek project manager from BES, Maggie Skenderian, setting the stage for the meeting. “This project will add flood storage and habitat on BES property south of Foster Road, from 106th Avenue east to 110th Drive.”

Along these blocks, we learn, 75% of the property has been bought by the City of Portland. “We’ve received a $2.7 Million FEMA grant for this project; the City matching the grant with a $900,000 budget. The project is in the design phase, and construction is scheduled for summer of 2009.”

Flooding every ten years
As she starts the meeting, Skenderian says that Johnson Creek has major floods every ten years, and minor floods every other year.

“When we have a big event, the creek flows over the banks,” explains Skenderian. “The water doesn’t have places to go. We’re in the process if trying to identify what our potential opportunities and concerns are here, from the people who live in the immediate area.”

Civil engineer Eirik Schultz talks about options available to alleviate flooding events.

Stepping up to the maps, Eirik Schultz and Vigil Agrimis, say they come from a firm of civil engineers, landscape architects specializing in rivers, streams and wetlands.

“The Johnson Creek channel has moved over time,” Schultz begins. “At one time, it was over here,” he says, pointing to a map. “But, it might have been over here. We study its hydrology [from the Greek, “water knowledge”]; it migrates and adjusts itself, as it moves water and sediment.”

“Other streams,” Schultz goes on, “may feature a three to four foot wide channel at ordinary high water. During a yearly ‘channel-forming event’, it might widen to 20 feet. Its floodplain would be between 80 to 100 feet wide.

“However, Johnson Creek is a 30-foot wide channel with 12-14 foot vertical sides.

“It doesn’t access its floodplain until a ten year event,” explains Schultz. “When it does overflow its banks, the flooding is going to be very broad.”

Proposes flooding cures and obstacles
“When we connect a stream to the floodplain, it has somewhere to go when it overflows,” says the hydrologist. “We’ll attempt to lower the water surface elevation. At a 10-year event, you’ll see less flooding onto Foster Road. It will not stop flooding on the system, but there is nothing we could do to alleviate flooding from a major event.”

One way to deal with flooding is “storage” – but a dam is impractical on Johnson Creek.

“Another way to deal with it is ‘conveyance’. That is, moving water though the system more quickly. What we’re trying to do is find a balance of the two. We model solutions by considering what happens if we put in a channel here, or widen a channel there.”

But the main constraint on the design, Schultz concludes, is having to design the project around existing bridges, sewer lines, and property owners.

Joyce Beedle, who says she’s lived near the creek since 1984, raises concerns brought forward by neighbors.

Property owners’ concerns voiced
“We have several concerns about the project,” pipes up Joyce Beedle, a 20-year resident, and spokesperson for the Lents-area neighbors affected by the project.

“The ‘we’ I’m referring to are the families who live on 106th 108th and 110th. We’ve gotten together three times now, in the past couple of weeks,” Beedle states, holding a sheaf of notes. “We came up with what we call crucial facts, concerns during construction, after completion, and ‘loose ends’ questions.”

Her list of “critical items” include:
1. “That, in this [BES/FEMA program], there be no means of forcing the current residents out. There is no provision for condemnation.”

Almost a third of the people in the affected area, Beedle estimates, are second or third-generation residents, who plan to pass their property to their next generation.

“There are a fair number of us who have lived here for 20 years or more. The shortest duration is a resident who has been here for eight years,” she adds.

2. “This plan should include maximizing the use of Brookside [a nearby site already completed] as a ‘preamble’ to the work done further west at this new site.”

The reason stated is that this nearby existing site, upstream on Johnson Creek, has been improved for a long enough time that experts should “know what it does, what does not do, and what it could do better.”

3. “This project makes the area a better place to live, instead of degrading this portion of the neighborhood.”

Describing the Brookside project as looking “delightful”, Beedle says that neighbors don’t want the city to construct an ill-planned, “accidental floodplain restoration project”.

4. “Keep in mind that properties on SE 106th Avenue are on septic systems; not city sewer.”

The concern is that, whatever water is traveling through or being stored on BES property in a high water event, will be contaminated by the septic systems. High water may back up septic systems into homes.

5.  “The gravel base on the [unpaved] roads will be destroyed by heavy truck traffic.”

To this, Skenderian states the City of Portland will not be paving the three gravel roads during or after construction.

6.  “We will be holding the City of Portland, represented by BES, as accountable for hiring and responsibly supervising the contractors.”

The concern, Beedle relates, is that contractors won’t be mindful of property owned by neighbors during the construction project.

When Skenderian asks if there are other concerns, longtime area resident Ernie Francisco states she’s concerned that trees will be removed from city property during the project.

“The BES and the City must obtain permits to remove trees, just like any landowner,” Skenderian responds.

This illustration shows areas affected by the City’s proposed project.

Resident questions floodplain maps
Clipping up a map of the Lents Johnson Creek Floodplain from the 1940s, homeowner Dale Guldenzopf proclaims, “The family has been living here since 1929. I’ve been coming to this house for 57 years. This house never flooded. The site flooded, but not the house.”

The site to which Guldenzopf refers is one lot north of the city-owned land at which the meeting is taking place. “I live next door. I have to pay for flood insurance, but I’m not even in the floodplain,” Guldenzopf says.

When he steps to the back of the meeting, we ask Guldenzopf what he thinks of the project, based on what he’s seen.

“If they administer it just right, it will be fine,” he replies. “But I’m a little concerned that they might buy up some of the property and develop it. This is valuable land.”

For more information, or to be put on a meeting notification list, neighbors are being asked to contact Marie Johnson at BES by calling (503) 823-6199, or e-mailing

We’ll keep you up to date as this story – and project – continues to develop.

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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