It’s not particularly exciting to have to dump $15 million of your local tax money into a flood-control levee project. Especially when that levee has not ever been a problem.
But it’s the responsible thing to do, and it’s a reminder of a substantially more urgent problem that still needs to be fixed. That problem is Wildcat Creek.
The news is about the levee, as you probably know. The levee is the earthen barrier that rings the south and east sides of the city to protect the main part of town from the Big Blue and Kansas rivers. The Big Blue flows down from the north, out of Tuttle Creek Reservoir, and meets the Kaw just east of town.
Manhattan is where it is because it’s at the junction of those rivers. That made lots of sense in the 19th Century, when rivers were a predominant form of travel and commerce. The rivers are still great assets, but of course they’re also a risk.
There’ve been several floods over the course of history, when those rivers backed up into the valley that is currently downtown Manhattan. You can walk around downtown and see some marks on the wall from the most recent version, in 1951.
That flood prompted the creation of Tuttle Creek, which holds back the Big Blue, and the levee system. That has all worked as intended. In ‘93 it was tested most severely, and it basically worked. The flooding that did occur that year happened because the government let water out of the spillway gates at the reservoir, so it rushed down an alternative river channel and backed up into the Dix Addition, in the Northview part of town.
Evidently engineering studies have determined that the levees need shoring up, in light of what was learned in ‘93. The City Commission this week agreed to a $30 million contract with a company that’s being hired to do the work. The city is in for half the cost; the remainder will be covered by federal taxpayers. The city’s share is likely to come from a surcharge on your water bills.
The work will entail raising the height of the levee by between 6 inches and three-and-a-half feet. There’s also some work to be done on the structure of the levee itself, to shore up the dry side of it and address the way water can be let out to the river from inside the levee. I assume that the work is, in fact, necessary. If a flood bigger than ‘93 hit us, and more water came roaring out of the Tuttle spillway, the water could run over the top of the levee, and would put more pressure on it structurally. Anyway, $30 million is a lot to pay, but it will seem like chump change compared to trying to get the Kansas River off of Fort Riley Boulevard.
Meanwhile, seemingly every year, Wildcat Creek jumps its banks and floods low-lying areas near it on the west side of town. Most of what we used to call Village Plaza has been under water, to the point that they knocked down an entire strip center there.
What have we done about that Wildcat Creek flooding? Not really anything. I’m not saying that people are ignoring it — certainly there’ve been meetings, and there’s more monitoring, and in fact some properties have been bought out. But, when you see $30 million going to a levee that has never failed, it does seem incongruous to have only incremental half-steps to deal with flooding that occurs routinely.