It’s sad to see the damage and destruction that recent rains have caused area communities and farmlands. But the flooding has reminded Wichitans to be grateful for an often overlooked and sometimes maligned local wonder: the Big Ditch.
Without the Wichita-Valley Center Floodway – as it’s officially known – a significant amount of Wichita, including parts of downtown, might be underwater.
Construction of the Big Ditch began in May 1950 and was completed in March 1959 at a cost of about $20 million. The 33-mile-long structure consists of levees, floodways and control structures. Runoff is contained in ponding areas.
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the ditch provides protection to about 49,000 acres of urban and rural lands against floods from the Little Arkansas River, the Arkansas River, the Big Slough and Cowskin Creek, and Chisholm Creek and its west, middle and east branch tributaries.
Because the ditch carries little water most of the year, it can be seen as a nuisance or oddity by many Wichitans, particularly west-side commuters who crowd across its few bridges. Even the construction work starting on a new bridge at I-235 and 13th Street is causing some grumbling.
But at times like this, Wichitans appreciate local leaders and engineers, such as M.S. Mitchell, for tackling and completing a project that has spared Wichita millions and millions of dollars worth of flood damage over the years (and millions of dollars in flood-insurance premiums). It’s difficult to imagine there being the political will and ability to undertake such a massive public project today.
The Big Ditch has two levels of banks. As of Tuesday, the water was about 2 or 3 feet short of climbing above the first level, so it has more capacity.
Still, Wichita is not out of danger. More water from Hutchinson and further upstream is headed this way. And heavy localized rain can cause flooding, particularly in creeks not linked to the Big Ditch or as the water drains from city roads and parking lots.
But thanks to the foresight and tenacity of local leaders several decades ago, most of the damaging floodwaters will be safely diverted around Wichita – for which we should all be grateful.