Evans residents are frustrated by decades of inaction on the Big Sister Creek flooding

A group of Evans residents have waited half a century for government agencies to stem the flooding of Big Sister Creek, but their patience has only left two dusty studies on a shelf.

During that time, floods destroyed a home and pool (twice) and temporarily inundated dozens of backyards, basements, and living rooms. The water is receding but leaving a mess of tree branches, sediment and blocks of ice obliterating some properties.

“If it’s in your yard and you’re near the water, it’ll be picked up and just pushed out into someone else’s yard,” said Lisa Guenot, who lives in the Rt. area. 5 and is a member of the neighborhood established Fix Big Sister Creek Committee.

The two studies by the US Army Corps of Engineers, completed 20 years apart, did not lead to a remedy.

A major flood of the creek in February 1965, according to many, prompted the first study into flood control solutions ordered by the City of Evans under the Flood Control Act 1948. The flooding damaged 18 homes and flooded most of the property through the city’s sewage treatment plant.

The US Army Corps of Engineers proposed levees and drainage structures to control flooding caused by ice jams, winter thaws, and spring rains. However, a cost-benefit analysis determined that the project was ineligible for federal funding, and the proposal fell through.

The second study, published in 1997, did not even attempt to propose solutions. Instead, the Army Corps of Engineers said the assessment could serve as a basis for new land-use controls in the floodplain.

Big Sister Creek in the town of Evans

“I’ve been in government for a while,” said Erie County Legislature-elect John Mills in 2005. “Studies are wonderful, but they’re only wonderful when you do what the study tells you to do, and a lot of times these studies stay on the shelf.”

Whatever the solutions, residents polled by News 4 Investigates expressed doubts that government officials will complete the job if they first need a rosy cost-benefit analysis. After all, around 30 property owners are affected by the flooding, which can prove difficult for state funds.

“But I think it’s expensive, and I don’t think it’s justified in their mind,” said Frank Markott, who has lived at the creek for 45 years. “And I don’t think it affects enough people, so that’s part of the problem.”

Various city regulators, state officials, and federal agencies have come and gone over the years with no results, but could this be the year when something finally gets done?

Tom George, the deputy city manager who was appointed city manager by his predecessor last year, believes so.

“I understand what residents are talking about,” George said. “The funding. The study. Getting everyone in government together to finally come up with a plan of action…I had nothing but support for them.”

The big sister is a big problem

The creek rises south of the village of North Collins and flows north before joining Rythus Creek and emptying into Lake Erie at Bennett Beach.

The section stretching from the creek’s mouth to the town of Evans presents the greatest problems as ice jams push flood water 3 miles upstream.

In a first study from the 1970s, ice jams were named as the main cause of the floods. The solutions included three levees and underlying drainage structures at preliminary estimates of nearly $125,000, or about $1.2 million in today’s dollars.

When the U.S. Army Corps completed another assessment of the creek in 1997, the agency recommended that local officials use it as a basis for better guiding future development of the floodplain.

City officials used to blow up dynamite to break up the ice, but those efforts have stopped. Markott said the problem has gotten much worse since then.

“It’s been 45 years and now that I’m getting older it’s harder to clean up the rubble and the mess,” Markott said.

The residents have their own solution ideas. A property owner built his own dike to keep out the floodwaters.

Some people believe that raising the bridge to RT. 5 would prevent ice blocks that can cause flooding.
Others believe placing pylons in the creek to break up any ice, similar to a successful project at Cazenovia Creek in West Seneca.

Some local residents believe the construction of this bridge on Rt. 5 will help reduce flooding on Big Sister Creek.

There are plans to replace the bridge, but a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation said the project is still in the planning stages and there is no timeline for construction.

Others believe the creek’s S-curves need to be straightened and the creek bed dredged.
State Senator Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, whose father lived at the creek, said he met with property owners in February and brought stakeholders back to the table.

“There’s no easy answer,” Gallivan said.

“The way I see it, our job is to try to bring people together to find the right people to take the lead and then provide the support where we can and move it forward and work towards a solution,” said Gallivan.

Another study?

In 1999, Guenot lost her home to floods. She estimates the water in the creek is 3 feet higher than it was when her family bought the property.

She has rebuilt the new building at a higher elevation, but family business Mike’s Landscaping is standing in the way of the flood.

Guenot said that prior to Gallivan’s involvement, neighbors had appealed to various state and local agencies for help, to no avail.

“We’ve contacted everyone we could and unfortunately it’s mid-July, winter is coming,” Guenot said, but “there’s no plan.”

David Schulenberg, chief of planning for the US Army Corps of Engineers in Buffalo, said flood risk management is part of the agency’s job, but the two previous reports are too out of date to rely on for solutions.

Flooding from Big Sister Creek inundates this basement in the town of Evans.

“Flooding problems — they can be tough,” Schulenberg said. “But if we work together at the federal, state and local levels, we can likely find a solution, structural or non-structural, a solution that we can implement together to reduce flooding along Big Sister Creek.”

Markott, who believes the creek floods could never be contained because the costs outweigh the benefits, said one of the government’s responsibilities is to protect the health of citizens.

“And we pay taxes,” he said. “So they should at least offer a solution, but that’s not the case.”

The city plans to apply for a $55,000 grant for a technical study that will detail both the causes and solutions to alleviate the flooding.

“Unfortunately, once again, the first step is a study,” Gallivan said.

Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here And Follow him on Twitter.

Tom Vazquez

Tom Vazquez is a USTimeToday U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Tom Vazquez joined USTimeToday in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with Tom Vazquez by emailing tomvazquez@ustimetoday.com.

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