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A Flood of Lessons

January 20, 2012

The stream running down my rose garden on Wednesday

Owning a home can be a wonderful experience. You have your own space, you can paint the walls anything you want and hang pictures with no remorse, you can cultivate the soil around your palace in pretty much any (legal) way you want.

But it can also be incredibly frustrating. And expensive.

Take my most recent issue: flooding.

As I stated, over the weekend, we got snow. Then, as Wednesday came, weather forecasters waffled as to what type of weather might follow our powdery four-day stretch. While much of the Pacific Northwest received more snow, we got rain. Rain, rain and more rain.After a day of work, I walked downstairs to let the dog out. At that point, I discovered a river running in under the corner of my fence line, down past the rose bushes and to my drain in the front part of my backyard. Bark and top soil was being washed down to the drain, but everything seemed to be holding — for the moment. I immediately inspected it and found the source of the water running off the property of the new house that was built on the hill behind my next-door neighbor’s house.

Where the water was flowing in under my fence -- can someone explain to me, given this, how my fence is acting as a dam?

I ran over there and talked with the wife, who said she knew there was an issue and showed me the water fall flowing off the back of her retaining wall. It wasn’t even rolling down to where she believed the drain to be. Instead, it was making a new path. When she parted, she told me that she knew that they would have to do something to make sure that this didn’t continue.

By the next morning, the water problem was far worse.

As hard rain fell, I inspected my yard. Instead of one breach in my fence, I had two. The heavy rush of water from the second stream spread bark halfway across my lawn and water was pooled over the drain. The pooled water was backing up across the lawn, turning the yard into a swimming pool. The side yard between my house and my neighbor’s house was nothing but an ever-rising lake, inundating our foundations.

While I started work, I also started making phone calls. The first was to the city to see if someone could help. The administration office put me through to the building department and I was shuttled over to a building inspector. The inspector told me that the home owner of the new house was responsible for making sure that their runoff didn’t impact other houses downhill.

By the time he came out to the house, though, his tune had change.

The water flowing off the property behind us Wednesday

Once here, he started lecturing me and my neighbor about how we were to blame for the water issues because we didn’t have proper trench between our properties and that we needed to have slopes of at least six inches off our foundation to the trench and we couldn’t keep water from running through our properties.

When I pushed back, he tried to claim that my fence was acting as a dam, so the flooding was my fault.

Um … huh?

He opened my fence and scraped away some soil inside and out and the water started to divert away from my foundation. When I said, “that’s great, but the water issue is from above and their drain is not in the right place,” he told me that the property has a drainage system that runs across the back length of the property.

That’s when it hit me: he’d likely inspected the property and drainage, so he was defensive about it.

The river running between my property and my neighbor's after we built the trench

He then tried to tell me that the flooding was likely caused by the fact that there was just too much rain at the moment and the flooding would have happened regardless. When I pointed out that this had never happened before, his refrain was that we were having an overwhelming amount of water.

Well, if that was the case, why were we the only ones affected? No other property in the area was having this type of drainage issue.

He finally relented and went up to the other property to look around. He then left without so much as giving my neighbor and me the time of day. Instead, my neighbor and I were left to dig out a trench between our houses to try to direct the water flowing off the property behind us down a common channel that wouldn’t hurt either of us.

The public works department stopped by, inspected and said, “This is a developer issue, not a public works issue.” They took a couple of pictures and then moved on.

And still we dug.

My parents stopped by to help. Our neighbor across the street made a trip to the county to get sandbags.

The flow of water after we worked on it Thursday

And still we dug.

With the help of a worker from the building going in on the other side of my house, we built a channel from the property with the drainage issues to meet up with the trench we built. Then we shored up the trench with the sandbags.

As we placed the last bag, my landscaper stopped by and walked the property. He said that — once it stopped raining — they could dig a proper trench and line it with river rock. But, as he noted, it wouldn’t take care of the flooding issue from above.

Once everyone left, I headed to grab more sandbags to help shore up the trench. After filling a dozen and bringing them home, I found the wife from the property behind my neighbor taking pictures of our flooding issues. I stopped to talk with her and found that she had been walking around the fields behind her house and found that a large pond had formed. She also discovered some strange bubbling water in areas and a pipe spewing water against the retaining wall around her yard.

Where the water is spewing out of the strange pipe behind the retaining wall


After placing my sandbags, I walked the property line to see if I could help deepen the trench anymore. The property owner’s children were out, trying to do the same. That’s when I found it: The pipe the wife had talked about.

On the other side of her property, right next to her retaining wall, a three-inch pipe was gushing water. My mouth dropped open.

This was the source of the flooding.

Not because we didn’t have a trench between our properties.

Not because we didn’t have the six-inch slopes from our foundations (I have a slope off my property, but my neighbor doesn’t).

Not because I have a fence.

Where the pipe comes from or is for, no one knows. What’s clear, though, is that it is directing water to the wrong area. And, while the workers who built the house may not have put in the pipe, it is likely that they knew it was there when they put in the retaining wall and filled in soil around it.

A different look at the water coming from the pipe. I couldn't get a few of the pipe itself because I would have had to trespass for that.

Now, I just have to determine my next step. After all, putting in a rock-lined trench will cost a lot of money. But going after the developer to pay for it (and mitigate any additional drainage issues) will also cost a lot of money.

In the meantime, I’m simply counting my numerous lessons from the day:

  1. You don’t need to go to a gym when you spend your day digging trenches, and filling and moving sandbags. All of these manage to work your legs, arms and core at the same time
  2. When filling sandbags, always bring gloves. Your hands will thank you
  3. There is a reason that they recommend that you set aside the equivalent of 5 percent to 7 percent 3 percent to 5 percent (oops!) of the value of your home in a savings account each year. You will definitely need it
  4. Sump pumps are highly underrated
  5. So is Aleve
  6. I have some really amazing family, friends and neighbors (I’ve learned this before, but it’s always great to experience it all over again)
  7. (Added Friday, Jan. 20) Don’t count on city officials to help you or identify the real cause of what’s going on — ever. It’s not in their interest to go after developers or get involved in this type of situation. They’d rather deflect blame.

From → Observations

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