WALLA WALLA — City Council member Allen Pomraning is making good on a campaign promise to think outside the box by offering a way he thinks could resolve issues with the deteriorating Mill Creek flood channel — reroute the creek from underground to outside on a “repurposed” street.
“My vision is to re-channel Mill Creek into a fish friendly 9,000 CFS (cubic feet of water per second) daylight, rock strewn sinuous channel down a repurposed Walla Walla city street and Port of Walla Walla property,” Pomraning recently posted on his personal Facebook page.
He describes how part of the new Mill Creek could be lined with tourist-friendly restaurants and shops, while the creek would be turned into a fish-friendly stream that would support birds, salmon, steelhead and lamprey.
The project also could include an environmental restoration center in partnership with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Bennington Lake would benefit from his plan because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would no longer have to draw water from the lake for flood control because the old flood channel would be used for overflow, he said.
Even downtown parking would be increased, added Pomraning, a retired project manager for the Corps.
As for which streets could be repurposed to become an open waterway, he said the historical path of Mill Creek has, at times, run along where Pine, Rose and Alder streets are now.
“Of course it ran on Main Street once, but (repurposing) that will never go over,” Pomraning said.
His Facebook post caught the attention of a number of officials with the city, county and Corps.
“I have served on Council 20-something years and I have seen a lot of (communication) styles,” Mayor Jerry Cummins said.
Cummins said there is already a Mill Creek Coalition studying solutions to fix the deteriorating flood channel structures. The coalition — consisting of county, city and Port officials and the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation — was formed last year to address the failing infrastructure of the 71-year-old flood channel completed in 1943.
In recent years, cracks in concrete and the closing of parking lots over Mill Creek tunnels have raised concern over structural integrity.
In a report from last July, the coalition said it believes Mill Creek flood-control structures are sound enough to meet flood control demands, but the coalition said a more aggressive maintenance program and more studies were needed within the next five years.
“I would think that a cooperative approach would be to look at the alternative approaches with the coalition that was selected to look it,” Cummins said, referring to Pomraning’s Facebook posting. “That would be a way to bring public interests without bringing public fear over what could happen.”
Pomraning conceded his idea, at best, was an initial concept that lacked any funding but he hoped it would get people talking.
“This is a new concept for the city (and) at this time we have zero budget and we have not applied for any funding,” Pomraning said.
Pomraning told the Union-Bulletin in an interview that funding improvements to the downtown portion of the current flood channel will prove complicated, if not impossible, because of the various entities that have either authority or ownership of the structures.
Those entities include private property owners who own the covered portions of the creek; the flood-control district, which manages the ground portion of the creek; and the Corps, which has authority over the vertical walls, embankments and Bennington Lake.
Corps officials said they were caught off guard by Pomraning’s Facebook suggestion.
“Your email on the Mill Creek Channel Naturalization was forwarded to me and caught me by surprise,” Rebecca Kalamasz, local Army Corps planning chief, wrote to Pomraning just hours after his March 14 post.
Gina Baltrusch, the Corps’ Walla Walla District public affairs specialist, added that Kalamasz’ email response was a “reaching out” to see if Pomraning had brought his ideas to the attention of the Mill Creek Coalition and if he was open to a future meeting to discuss his proposal.
Turning waterways into recreational or even retail areas while still providing effective flood control is not a new concept.
Baltrusch said the Corps has been involved in these projects, including a smaller project in Caldwell, Idaho, on Indian Creek. But such projects must fall within the continuing authorities or parameters of Corps’ directives.
Pomraning noted his idea would alleviate funding problems that derive from multiple ownership. He also noted that salmon recovery money could be used to fund some of the project if the new waterway was built with fish passage engineering.
“San Antonio. That is my vision, the San Antonio model, where you have restaurants and boutique stores and tourists,” Pomraning said.
The San Antonio Riverwalk is a successful metropolitan flood-control project on the San Antonio River that was approved by Congress in 1938, the same year funding for the Mill Creek flood channel was approved. Over the past 70 years the Riverwalk has been updated a number of times to create more retail frontage and a major tourism attraction.
The Mill Creek Flood District stretches about six miles from near Rooks Park to the Gose Street bridge. Roughly two miles of the flood channel comprise vertical concrete embankments and tunnels through the downtown corridor. Waterflows in the channel are controlled by diverting water out of Mill Creek and into Bennington Lake during high runoff.
You can find Pomraning’s posting via his Facebook page.
Alfred Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8325.