SUNDOWN

The sun sets on the control tower at Tuttle Creek Dam at the end of May. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ramped up outflow at the outlet works to 27,500 cubic feet per second to keep the water from reaching the top of the dam. 

It’s time to give credit to the engineers: It looks like they managed their way out of almost-certain disaster in Manhattan.

It’s the latter part of July, and Tuttle Creek Lake is down 12 feet from its high. August is typically hotter and drier, and precipitation here generally trends downward until next spring. So it’s safe to assume that the lake will continue to drop, eventually to its normal level.

That’s remarkable, when you think back to Memorial Day weekend and the weeks around it. At that point, the lake was rising fast, and it appeared inevitable that floodwaters would come roaring out the spillway, inundating part of the Northview neighborhood. In fact, the government advised residents of that area that they should get ready to evacuate, the gas company began shutting off service, and the County Commission enacted a curfew.

The water got about three inches from the top of the spillway gates. Three inches!

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that manages the lake, was recalculating on an hourly basis, figuring out how much water was coming in from the broad territory to the north that feeds Tuttle Creek. The Corps had two ways to let water out: Through the tubes, the pipes that run out the base of the west end of the dam; and the spillway gates, the enormous metal walls at the east end of the dam that have only been opened once. The trouble was that the tubes could only release so much at a time, and the Corps also had to consider what would happen downstream, all the way to the Missouri River. It was a systemwide crisis, due to heavy rains throughout the Midwest for months.

There’s an element of luck in all this, of course. It quit raining. Or at least, it slowed down enough to allow the system — with the engineers expertly turning the dials — to drain.

In 1993, that didn’t happen. The Corps had to open the spillway gates, sending millions of gallons of water cascading down a flood channel, through Northview, and then back into the Blue and Kansas rivers. That was a disaster here.

This time, the water went out the tubes, down the regular river channels, and eventually to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. The system worked exactly as it was supposed to.

It’s easy, in the heat of the moment, when disaster appears likely, to start blaming people. The Corps occasionally gets it, and we need to note here that protecting Manhattan is not their only job. Tuttle exists also to keep flooding out of Kansas City, for instance.

It’s also worth noting that there’s a lot of work to do now. Cleanup around the lake is going to be a major job.

But let’s not forget to take a moment to give credit where it’s due. We owe a big thanks to the Corps, from Brian McNulty and the local staff to the people further up the chain of authority. You all kept us dry when it looked certain that we were about to flood.

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