It’s been a wet four weeks in Sedgwick County.
The deluge has also renewed talks about Sedgwick County’s investment in drainage projects that mitigate the effects of stormwater.
“We need to really revisit how we think about drainage as an infrastructure no different than roads and bridges,” Commissioner Tim Norton said. “Or we’re always going to be faced with the rain events that cause problems.”
The county’s Stormwater Management Advisory Board met Sept. 7 for the first time since May 2015. The board unanimously agreed to meet quarterly and craft a list of stormwater management priorities for Sedgwick County.
Our challenge is to keep this issue alive.
Sedgwick County Chairman Jim Howell
“Since we haven’t met in a year, we haven’t had input on any budgeting decisions,” said Derby City Manager Kathy Sexton.
“No one city can do it by themselves,” Sexton said. “The county’s leadership is needed on this issue.”
Studies over the years have recommended drainage work for the county to complete. But Sedgwick County does not have a dedicated way to fund these projects.
“We don’t have the money to pay for these things,” Public Works Director David Spears said.
How drainage works
Sedgwick County’s drainage work falls under its public works department, which also maintains the county’s road and bridge system.
State law allows counties to have stream maintenance crews. They look for the buildup of fallen trees and debris that can block the flow of water, which can cause waterways to overflow and endanger lives and property.
“It’s kind of like a clogged artery in your heart,” Deputy Public Works Director Jim Weber said. “We take things out and get things running again.”
Using bulldozers and excavators, the department’s four-person crew clears these blockages, reshapes the banks of creeks and inspects streams during floods. Spears says the crew was cut back from six workers during the recession.
“It’s an effective crew, but it’s not very big,” Weber said.
It’s a tough battle to get long-term interest in stormwater.
Sedgwick County Deputy Public Works Director Jim Weber
The county also works with the city of Wichita to maintain the Big Ditch by mowing grass, preventing erosion, repairing fences and removing debris.
There’s another $500,000 a year in the county’s Capital Improvement Plan for miscellaneous drainage projects.
But unlike other areas of public works, there is no capital improvement plan for drainage. There is also no dedicated funding source, like a mill levy or a sales tax.
“We need the same thing for the drainage if we really want to get some things done,” Spears said.
Norton and Chairman Jim Howell have been the most vocal commissioners on drainage. Both said they need to talk about a potential funding source for drainage improvements.
State Sen. Michael O’Donnell, who is running against Norton to represent southwest Wichita, Haysville and Clearwater on the commission, said the county should look at reallocating other public works dollars to drainage.
“When it comes to county dollars for infrastructure, reducing this flooding is a top priority, more than new roads or anything,” O’Donnell said.
Howell encouraged the board on Sept. 7 to develop of list of priorities and costs similar to a capital improvement plan.
“Present that (to the county commission),” Howell said. “Because without a list, I have no idea what I’m fighting for.”
‘Sitting on the shelf’
Sedgwick County has done drainage studies in the past several years, but has largely not acted on them.
“The county spent money doing these studies, but doesn’t seem to have the interest in funding the mitigation identified by the study,” Howell said. “Without another revenue stream, there’s no way.”
Weber says studies typically recommend more intensive work than normal stream maintenance, like building retention ponds, channels or barriers. The projects can run several million dollars apiece.
Until you get started and take the work of the advisory board very seriously and put some money into it, then it’s just another report sitting on the shelf.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton
“The board understands that this is going to require a dedicated funding source to do these projects,” Weber said.
But that understanding is nothing new.
“The lack of a dedicated revenue source severely hampers the county’s ability to initiate watershed planning or capital improvement projects for stormwater management,” according to the board’s business plan issued in 2010.
Reports going back to at least the Halloween floods of 1998 have argued a lack of a consistent funding source was a problem.
Norton said the county needs to pick off some smaller projects that are “low-hanging fruit.”
“You don’t build a church for Easter Sunday. You build it for what you think is going to be functional for regular circumstances,” Norton said.
“Until you get started and take the work of the advisory board very seriously and put some money into it, then it’s just another report sitting on the shelf.”
Officials say it’s hard to know whether more drainage projects would have made a huge difference in the most recent flooding episodes.
“These were extreme events,” Sexton said. “But we know they’re going to happen.”
But flooding could have been worse without stream maintenance on the Cowskin Creek, which lies in Sedgwick County.
County crews cleaned out debris from the Cowskin Creek from the Sumner County line to Haysville and the Big Ditch.
No one city can do it by themselves. The county’s leadership is needed on this issue.
Derby City Manager Kathy Sexton
“It took several years going property owner by property owner,” Spears said. “We found things like 1,500 tires … in the creek.”
Weber said the work on the Cowskin helped avoid constructing channels that would cost several million dollars each.
Norton said he thought the Cowskin Creek handled the most recent flooding well.
“In past years, we would have major flooding off the Cowskin, knocking out bridges, whatever,” Norton said. “It flowed beautifully just like it’s supposed to.”
‘Keep this issue alive’
The cyclical nature of drought and flooding can keep attention spans on water management short, Howell said.
“Politically, you’ve seen almost no discussion about water supply,” Howell said. “And likewise, the reverse of that is a few years ago we didn’t have much discussion about stormwater because it wasn’t an issue at the time.
“Our challenge is to keep this issue alive,” he said.
Howell added that addressing drainage problems takes political will from commissioners all over the county.
We need to really revisit how we think about drainage as an infrastructure no different than roads and bridges.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton
“There’s not enough support from five districts on something that primarily affects two districts,” Howell said, referring to Districts 5 and 2, which he and Norton represent.
Weber also said it’s hard to keep long-term focus on stormwater maintenance as elected officials and flood cycles change over time.
“It’s not so much about, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem at the corner of Pawnee and Seneca,’ ” Weber said. “This is a decades-long process.
“It’s a tough battle to get long-term interest in stormwater.”