Officials stumped over solutions to flood risk at Wildcat Creek

By Stephen Cameron

The days are getting sunnier now, with most of those sudden spring rains perhaps done for another year.

You can stroll across a bridge on Scenic Drive and look down on placid, lazy Wildcat Creek – drifting so slowly toward the southeast and its rendezvous with the Kansas River.

The only hint that this might be anything other than a nice, peaceful place is an odd-looking metal gadget — a gauge that measures the flow and height of the creek water as it passes into Manhattan.

“This isn’t a time when people are even considering the thought of a flood,” says Dave Lewis, a Riley County commissioner who refuses to accept the current serenity of Wildcat Creek as anything more than an excuse for locals to forget.

“I’m afraid,” Lewis says with a sigh, “that it might actually take a loss of life to shock everyone into demanding that we find how to deal with this creek — and what it might do.”

Certainly Wildcat Creek has offered plenty of warning what can happen when the weather turns ugly.

It has overflowed quickly and severely three times since 2007, and the flood that began June 2, 2011, seemed to spur officials from the city and county — along with engineers, hydrologists, contractors and other experts from far and near – into activity.

An unofficial body called the Wildcat Creek Working Group was formed to look into the various flood causes, and then suggest solutions to make things safer for everyone living in or near high-risk areas.

Countless opinions formed, often contradictory despite everyone having access to the same data, and in the end —when the working group more or less went into cruise control around the middle of 2012 — the people involved seemed to agree on only one thing.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” says Herb Graves, executive director of the Association of Kansas Watersheds. “Wildcat Creek will flood again, and there’s no guarantee it won’t be worse than ever the next time.”

Rod Harms, a longtime landscape architect who was a co-chairman of that working group, doesn’t bother to mince words.

“Of course it’s going to flood again, and we have no idea how bad it really might be,” says Harms, who lives on property bordering the creek near Anneberg Park.

“With all of the theories and discussions about the reasons, the causes and so on, nothing concrete — other than putting those three gauges in place (Keats Bridge, Scenic Drive and Seth Child Road) to provide some warning and information — really has been done to find proper engineering solutions, to truly settle on a ‘best management’ practice for the creek and its tributaries.

“If you let yourself think about it, the situation is a little bit frightening, not just for property but for human beings.”

Harms came away from his working-group studies convinced that the answer — perhaps the only long-term solution — is creation of a Wildcat Creek Watershed District.

Riley County can apply to the state to form a watershed district — an independent body with its own board and considerable authority — because it is still within the five-year limit of being designated a disaster area by the governor in 2011.

A watershed district would, in theory, use money from its own funding devices to discover the best ways to slow and/or divert Wildcat Creek — using clearer channels upstream, a series of dams, detention areas where scientists decide they’re most useful — and then maintain these areas year to year.

However, the key word in that description is money.

“I’m not sure $1 million every year would fix Wildcat Creek,” says Ron Wells, another county commissioner and also a co-chair of the working group. “But that’s the number that’s been tossed out for a watershed district here to make some important changes.

“Well, our rural folks upstream don’t want to give up any of their land or pay taxes when they see Manhattan as the problem. There are people and groups that say they would sue over this.”

Lewis agrees, in part – which matters, because a watershed district only could be formed by the Riley County Commission or a petition calling for a public vote.

“Look, I think a formal watershed district is the best opportunity, from a technical perspective, to contain the water that causes Wildcat Creek to flood here in Manhattan,” Lewis says.

“But to be honest, I can’t see that there is the political will for it right now. If the watershed district assessed a mill levy to raise some money, how would that go over with people all over the county — and even in town —who are not directly threatened with flooding?”

“We live in a fiscal world,” admits Harms, although he argues that the county itself would save money if a watershed district mitigated damage and maintained control of the creek.

“It’s tough to measure from flood to flood, but remember that each of these structures stuck in the floodplain, or public land needing repair after so much high water… all of that represents loss of value on the tax rolls.

“Poor management of this watershed costs Riley County money. Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend $500,000 or $1 million each year to do the things that will improve the situation and actually turn it to profit?”

Greg Foley, who runs the conservation division of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, puts the cost/loss equation into yet another context.

“Manhattan specifically and Riley County in general are growing,” Foley says. “That’s a fact, and considerable time is spent planning for that growth.

“If you’re certain to have growth, you need to consider hydrology. Where will water come from and where will it go with new development?

“As for the Wildcat Creek watershed — or any situation like this — there definitely are going to be some engineering solutions. There are 89 organized watershed districts in Kansas, just for that reason. You hope to spend a little bit of money to find solutions that save you in the long run.”

Foley was consulted by the Wildcat Creek working group, and he advised county officials how to go about setting up a watershed district if they chose that route — describing how to use eminent domain, funding mechanisms and other tools.

But Foley also conceded Riley County was a strange animal — with so much of the flood danger centered in one urban area that contains only 7 miles of Wildcat Creek. “It’s a difficult decision,” he says. “I understand why people don’t want to pay a tax for somebody else’s problem.”

Rich Jankovich, another co-chairman of the working group and a Manhattan city commissioner, also grasps the dilemma — and points out that there are so many conflicting opinions about what makes the flooding so dangerous that it’s hard to get a consensus on anything.

“The decision on where to go from here, at least in terms of a watershed district, is in the hands of the county,” he says, “and they haven’t done anything about it lately. They apparently have other issues that require focus.

“But there are things we need to know, and from there, we need to learn what to fix.

“For instance, I believe that the common perception that development along Wildcat Creek causes flooding is a complete fallacy, and I think it’s a shame that people might believe that.

“But building up the sides of the creek to build those apartments (on Scenic Drive), maybe that makes the channel deeper, or flow differently. We need to know these things for certain, just like we need to know how much the level of the Kansas River affects Wildcat in a storm.

Jankovich suggests that Manhattan has done just about all it can, and senior planner Chad Bunger seconds that notion.

“We’ve focused on drainage issues in the city and providing active responses to flood situations,” Bunger says.

As for the debate over a watershed district, he says, “The city has stayed out of the discussion. We didn’t want to pressure (the county) right, wrong or otherwise.”

And there things remain.

“I guess you describe the watershed district option as sitting on a shelf, and maybe you take it down and look at it again in different circumstances,” Well says. “Right now, I see more cons than pros — and that’s how a majority of county residents feel, I think.”

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