Flooding disaster averted along Johnson Creek

A story about something that didn’t happen? Take a look, and see how high the water rose along SE Foster Road in Lents – and, what the potential flood meant to one business there …

It’s not a good sign for Lents business owners, when this many Portland BES vehicles are parked alongside SE Foster Road during a heavy rainstorm.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
They weren’t selling or working on ATVs or other recreation vehicles, at Sargents Motorsports on January 19.

Instead, at this Lents neighborhood business which provides sales, parts and service for kinds of two, three and four-wheeled vehicles, employees – and their family members, and friends – were furiously packing up merchandise, moving rolling stock, and getting ready to move their service bay gear to higher ground.

The effort wasn’t a new one for the family-owned company; their location at SE 107th Avenue and SE Foster Road is considered the “low spot” in the area, and has regularly flooded in the past when Johnson Creek has overflowed its banks.

As the rain pelts down – workers, family, and friends are busy inside Sargents Motorsports, at SE 107th Avenue on SE Foster Road, getting ready if Johnson Creek should again flood.

Gary Sargent Sr. rolls one of his brand-new motorbikes back into a storage unit behind his store – a place permanently located on higher ground.

Even before the City of Portland Department of Transportation put out a warning that Johnson Creek might breach its banks by late afternoon, everyone in the store and service center was already in the process of moving valuables to higher ground.

While moving merchandise about the high water line, owner Gary Sargent Sr. mused aloud if all the money spent the City of Portland and the federal government on the “East Lents Flood Restoration Project” was really worth the cost.

Gary Sargent Jr. packs boxes, ready to move motorbike accessories to a flood-safe warehouse.

  • Read our story about this project’s “phase one” completion celebration held last October: CLICK HERE.

“Half of my property is in the floodplain, and half is above it,” commented Sargent. “I’d hoped to get help from the City to relocate my business. They bought out all the homeowners on the south side of Foster Road to make a floodplain.”

As the rain unceasingly pounded outer East Portland that afternoon, we drove further east. A half-dozen City vehicles were parked between what once were SE 107th and 108th Avenues, with workers surveying the steadily rising creek.

Local residents watch Johnson Creek rise to the top of the culvert on SE 108th Avenue, just south of SE Foster Road.

Taking a chance, we drove across the bridge above the rain-swollen creek on SE 108th Avenue, southbound, into the restoration area.

In the road ahead of us, swept with ankle-high muddy water, stood City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services Johnson Creek Watershed Manager Maggie Skenderian.

As water flows across SE 108th Avenue, in the middle of the restoration project area, BES Johnson Creek Watershed Manager Maggie Skenderian stays in constant communication with her co-workers.

Skenderian didn’t have time to chat; she was fielding one phone call after another, coordinating with others on her team – checking various locations, and taking readings along Johnson Creek, from Gresham west into Portland.

As the rain pelted, we drove across the bridge. The rushing stormwater threatened to overrun that passage, and trap us on the dead-end road.

Once a Lents neighborhood with streets and houses, this restored floodplain now stores flood water as intended, officials explain.

Close, but no flooded roads
Many waited with some dread to hear a Foster Road closure announcement throughout the afternoon – but it never came. Although the roiling water was very high, and over its natural banks, Johnson Creek didn’t flood during a serious storm – perhaps for the first time in recorded history.

Next morning, Skenderian had time to talk with us. “You’re right. It does seem like odd news to proclaim SE Foster Road didn’t flood yesterday! It was close; the Sycamore gage near SE 150th Avenue read a high of 13.2 feet – this was serious storm event.”

Having removed more than 50,000 cubic yards of soil (about 5,000 dump truck loads) from the lowlands next to Johnson Creek, and reconnecting the creek to its floodplain last year, appears to have had its intended result, Skenderian pointed out.

Workers constructed a box culvert at the west end of the new Lents floodplain last October. East Portland News archive photo

“It was usually at the westerly area, from SE 102nd to 106th Avenues, where stormwater would flood onto SE Foster Road during high water events,” Skenderian commented. But, with the excavation sloping down to a box culvert at the west end of the project, road-flooding water stayed in the floodplain.

“We were close to maxing out the system during this storm,” Skenderian acknowledged. “If we’d have a few more inches of rain, it might have overflowed. But, it performed as expected, even though this is now one of our ‘top 20’ stormwater events.”

This isn’t a pond – it’s Johnson Creek, looking east from SE 108th Avenue, high above its natural banks.

Business owner relieved
Although he’d lost two days of productivity, Sargent had three words to express his feelings: “We are ecstatic!”

In the past, when the creek level rose to near 11 feet, Sargent said, his business would have been flooded. “Water would come in from two different directions. Now, we know we’re good up to the 13.2 feet flood level.”

And, while he and others did move everything to high ground, “We didn’t have to clean all the mud and debris out of our business. Each of the past floods cost us between $15,000 and $20,000 to replace lost or damaged items, and make repairs to the building.”

Looking ahead, Sargent said, “There’s a ‘Phase II’ for the project. Given what they’ve learned from this event, perhaps they can make future improvements, like increasing the height of the berm, and increasing the bank height long Foster Road, to hold a little more water.”

© 2012 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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