OSWEGO -- Port City councilors are directing the city engineer to study an often flooded area on the city's west side, and to develop possible solutions to the solve the decades-old problem.
The western end of Utica Street, where the roadway intersects with Hillside Avenue, has been susceptible to flooding for decades, and the area was designated a flood zone by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the 1970s, according to city officials. The city Administrative Services Committee this week unanimously approved a measure authorizing the city engineer to develop bid documents that could be used for future repairs, rehabilitation or upgrades to the storm sewer system known as Gardenier Creek, which is blamed for the flooding.
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow said residents living in the area are seeking some sort of relief, and city officials decided to task City Engineer Jeff Hinderliter with examining the issue and developing bid documents that could spell out future repairs or upgrades to eliminate the flooding.
"It could be as simple as cleaning out drain pipes," Barlow said. "It could be — depending on how resolved you want the issue — redesigning the entire massive system and the two drains and redirecting them or lifting them up."
Under heavy rains, portions of Utica Street from Hillside Avenue to the east and other nearby properties have stood under feet of water in recent years, most recently on June 20, 2019, when massive rainfall led to the closure of several city streets and a travel advisory due to flooding concerns. Frederick Leighton Elementary School dismissed students early, and a nearby driver required rescue after their car was nearly submerged on Utica Street.
Barlow called that perhaps the "most notable" event in the area, but said there have been flooding issues in the area since the 1970s. Two large stormwater pipes that run underneath the area drain large portions of the city, and a number of factors have caused that drainage system not to function properly.
City officials say sand and silt have infiltrated the pipes and limited the amount of water flow. Higher than average lake levels in recent years also prevented water from exiting the pipes into Lake Ontario.
"There's a lot of factors at play here," Barlow said, adding development in the area has also changed the landscape and possibly exacerbated previously existing issues.
Several area residents voiced their concerns to the council this week, one of whom described flooding in 2000 and 2019 as “a direct result of lack of maintenance by the city of Oswego.”
Henry Giberson, who owns the property at 214 W. Utica St., said the issue has gotten progressively worse over the last few years, and pleaded with councilors to approve the study and consider taking action. Giberson said flooding over the years has caused "horrific things" from the sewers to end up in residents' yards. Councilor John Gosek Jr., R-5th Ward, said the pipes were initially installed in the 1930s and cleaned at some point in the 1980s. Gosek said the previous city engineer recommended cleaning the pipe out again in the early 2000s but no action was taken.
Residents in the area have been asking for help for years, Gosek said, urging the council to support the measure.
The measure approved by the Administrative Services Committee this week simply allows the city engineer to study the issue and come up with possible solutions. The full common council is expected to vote on the resolution Monday.
Barlow warned the project could ultimately come with "an enormous cost" and require outside funding to complete, but noted determining what exactly needs to be done is the obvious first step.
"If it actually involves cleaning out the entire system or redirecting the pipes or raising the pipes, it's going to be a multi-million dollar investment," Barlow said, adding that would be another conversation down the road once the picture becomes clearer.
Hinderliter called the proposal "a logical move," and said the first step would be to understand the sewer and drainage system and identifying possible solutions.
"It is a big problem," Hinderliter said. "One that probably extends beyond my offices' capabilities right now, but this is a solid first step to try to correct the problem by knowing what's going on."
The city in 2019 sought funding to improve drainage in the area as part of the state's Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative (REDI), which ultimately helped fund the renovations at Wright's Landing Marina and the International Pier. City officials at the time said the project was a long shot, and the funding was not awarded.