Red Cedar Rising


Director of building services Gus Gosselin received a call from MSU Police over the weekend. The Red Cedar River had just surpassed the minor flood stage, 7 feet.

Gosselin had knowledge of the climbing waters and estimations of where it would crest from forecast models, so he and his team had prepared the potentially affected buildings and had been observing for any variations.

The Red Cedar River crested at 7.33 feet, flooding much of the DeMartin Soccer Stadium and only portions of the McClane Baseball Stadium and the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden — a “garden-variety” flooding, compared to historical records, said Mark Walton, a hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Red Cedar River Flood 5/17/14

Although the river benefits the campus with its tranquil, scenic aspects, it is under constant monitoring by MSU officials for fear of flooding.

Portions of MSU are built upon what is referred to as a 100-year flood plain, or the area surrounding a river that, year-to-year, has a 1 percent chance of flooding.

MSU structures built within the 100-year floodplain include the entire Brody Neighborhood, the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center, the Sparty statue, Spartan Stadium, IM Sports-Circle, the Computer Center and potentially the Hannah Administration Building, among others.

Come Again Another Day

According to the recent National Climate Assessment for the Midwest region, annual precipitation has increased by 20 percent in the past century and is estimated to continue increasing.

The upward trend of precipitation is primarily “driven by intensification of the heaviest rainfalls,” which are defined as rain events producing an inch or more of precipitation. Such events also are estimated to occur more frequently.

Julie Winkler, geography professor and co-author of one of the assessment’s technical papers, said it’s difficult to predict precipitation increases but, as the study concludes, temperatures in the Midwest are rising at a rapid rate, which produces an increase of water vapor in the atmosphere and the potential for increased precipitation.

“One concern is whether or not more extreme precipitation will increase in the future because of (the) water vapor in the atmosphere due to higher temperatures,” Winkler said.

Another trend that Walton and many others have been tracking is that of river flooding, which has been on an upswing in Michigan, he said.

“What we’re seeing across the state of Michigan is a trend where we’re starting to see more frequent flooding and higher (levels of) flooding,” he said.

Walton said frequent and intense flooding events are not the sole consequent of precipitation, rather, flooding is a “death by 1,000 cuts” that is exacerbated by urbanization, or the removal of porous surfaces that absorb storm water runoff, along a floodplain. Instead, the runoff goes directly into the river.

“The chance of MSU’s campus getting smacked is pretty high,” Walton said, citing urbanization along the river and MSU's location in the floodplain as the two main causes.; not sure what to do with A, B,


Although the chance of a 100-year flood occurring at any given year are slim, Walton said, over longer periods of time the odds increase.

“If you have a home within the 100-year floodplain with a 30-year mortgage, the odds of you getting flooded are 26 percent," Walton said.

According to MSU, this scale of flooding would occur when the Red Cedar River reaches 14.4 feet, but Walton estimates it would occur at 12 to 14 feet.

Earlier this year, the possibility that lingering snowpack in March would melt with spring showers prompted concerns that a flood of 100-year proportions might occur, Gosselin said.

“This spring we were a little bit nervous because of the amount of snow we got this winter and the potential for spring rainfall, because that could have caused a 100-year flood to happen,” Gosselin said.

Luckily, the conditions were not met and large-scale flooding was avoided.

“Mother nature was kind to us,” Gosselin said. “We had a slow melt and we did not get the April rains as we have in the past. That was a big worry.”

In April 1975, after heavy rainfalls, the river flooded to almost 12 feet and caused an estimated $50,000 in damage to MSU buildings, and an additional estimated $25,000 to campus roads and gardens, according to State News archives. It was the third-largest flood in recorded history.

Preventative Measures

According to the Storm Water Management Master Plan for Central Campus, MSU officials and faculty realize a need for mitigating the effects of urbanization through the use of rain gardens, bioswales and other storm-water absorbing apparatuses, because “large areas of hardscape create accelerated runoff rates and increase runoff pollution; the runoff is piped directly into the Red Cedar River rather than infiltrated.”

To mitigate damage from flooding, and to prevent any from occurring in the first place, IPF Vice President Kemel Dawkins said MSU participates in flood response drills with emergency officials and has drafted emergency plans for a variety of possible flood scenarios, from a 10-year flood, to a 500-year one.

Under the threat of a large-scale flood earlier this year, Dawkins said members of IPF were prepared to erect flood barriers and sandbags along the river. In the event that the rising waters breached those, IPF workers would position the measures around the exteriors of at-risk buildings.

Although the trend in Red Cedar flooding has been periodic, Dawkins said it is clear that “we are having more significant severe weather events.”

In regard to large-scale flooding, Gosselin said that there have been several close calls in his career at MSU, but campus has been lucky so far.

“Knock on wood, I’ve been here 25 years and we have not had a great flood since then,” Gosselin said.

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