When hard rains hit Wichita, almost everyone in town knows which streets and intersections to avoid.
Bleckley Drive. Maple and Meridian. West Street and Zoo Boulevard. Washington and Murdock. And that’s just to name a few.
City officials know those problem areas, too — and now they’re in a position to do more about them.
The Wichita City Council this spring approved a storm water utility fee that is expected to generate about $1.4 million a year to help reduce street flooding.
“Bleckley Drive is a prime example” of an area badly in need of improved drainage, said James Hardesty, the city’s interim storm water drainage manager. “It’s the first one on our list.”
The Wichita-Valley Center Flood Control Project, most commonly referred to as the Big Ditch, offers protection from catastrophic flooding to an area that stretches from Hillside west to just past I-235. More than 220,000 people live in that area, which includes nearly 83,000 structures.
That flood control system has allowed the city to prosper, Hardesty said.
“Otherwise, the periodic flooding would have devastated our city,” Hardesty said. “They left us a legacy and gave us the opportunity to become what we are today.”
The city sits in a bowl that extends from about Ridge Road east to Hillside. Those street names aren’t just pleasing monikers, he said: Ridge runs along a ridge and Hillside is on the side of a hill.
Before the ditch was built in the ‘50s, that area regularly flooded. The city flooded three times in 11 days in the spring of 1944. While the ditch protects homes and businesses, it can’t keep the streets from flooding.
The metropolitan area is so flat, street flooding can be expected any time there’s a lot of rain in a short amount of time.
“We love Wichita, but topography is not our specialty,” Hardesty said.
Bleckley Drive, a winding street east of Oliver, isn’t protected by the Big Ditch. It floods rapidly in a heavy rain, behaving like a creek with a concrete basin.
“Public safety and the threat to public safety in some of these areas are the number one priority,” Hardesty said. “That sends Bleckley right to the top” of the list.
A woman had to be rescued from her car last September after becoming stranded during a flood on Bleckley. On that same night, two people had to be pulled from a car that was swept off of Harry and flipped upside down in Gypsum Creek just east of Rock Road.
Ranking problem areas
The city has already spent $12 million to reduce flooding along West Street, Hardesty said, “and we’re not done yet” there.
“Because we’re so flat, it takes the water a long time to get there” to the drains,” he said. “We don’t have the grade working for us.”
“The system just gets overwhelmed.”
City crews work daily to clear inlets of debris such as limbs and trash to maximize drainage flow, he said.
“We have 1,200 miles of conduit in the ground we’re cleaning constantly, which helps alleviate those local flooding events,” Hardesty said.
But more needs to be done, he said, and that’s why the storm water utility fee is so important. Each residential and business account is charged $1.50 a month.
The fee “allows us to begin the process of fixing these expensive chronic problems that we all know are there and there’s never any funding for it,” Hardesty said.
City officials are considering borrowing money through a bond issue to pay for the needed improvements. Waiting for years can drive up the costs of the projects, he said.
So much work needs to be done on Bleckley, for instance, that it will likely have to be done in two phases. Each would cost about $5 million, he said.
Among the intersections that are “long-term, chronic problems,” Hardesty said, are:
▪ 21st and Broadway
▪ Washington and Murdock
▪ Seneca and Walker
▪ Meridian and Harry
▪ Maple and Meridian
▪ Murdock and Wabash
“There are dozens of projects throughout the city that are being considered and ranked,” Hardesty said.
A timetable for when work on any of them could begin has not been set.