Amid storms, environmental concerns and budget cuts, county’s clogged waterways challenge clean-up crew

Never in Jim Weber’s 31 years of working for Sedgwick County has the public works deputy director seen so much debris in the 1,200 miles of creeks, streams and rivers that the county oversees.

Some areas of the county’s waterways have been worse at different times, he said, but nothing as widespread as it is now.

Blame it on a combination of factors.

A storm on June 27 whipped the area with winds up to 80 mph, tossing limbs and trees in creeks and streams. That was followed by more than 15 inches of rain over a five-week period through mid-August, plus heavy rains upstream in Reno and Harvey counties that poured into the Little Arkansas River.

“The wind storm knocked the stuff down or loosened it up,” Weber said, “and then the big rains moved a lot of bad stuff to a lot of bad places in a short amount of time.

“I don’t ever remember a situation like this.”

Don’t expect the county to clean it all up any time soon. In fact, the county doesn’t attempt to keep all 1,200 miles cleaned out.

“It’s not even possible,” Weber said.

Certainly not with only four people assigned to the task.

The waterways still have debris from a 2005 ice storm, county officials said. That also was about the time the county cut the staffing level from six people to four and stopped hiring summer help, Public Works Director David Spears said.

The county works off a hot-spot list that continually has 15 to 20 priority areas that need the most urgent attention, Weber said. Those include areas where powerful water flows have shoved large balls of debris against some of the counties 600 bridges or damaged roads leading to bridges. Or a creek is rerouting itself after its banks have been severely cut away and is threatening houses.

“We’ll always have 15 to 20 items on the list,” Weber said. “We don’t have to go looking for work. People let us know.”

Just addressing the areas on the list now, he said, would keep his his stream-cleaning crew busy for the next three to five years. But more stuff will pile up in other areas during that time, so the list will have to be reprioritized.

Change in tactics

The county had to change its debris removal tactics after it got “crosswise” with federal agencies about two years when they learned the county was putting heavy tracked equipment in creek beds to clean them out, Weber said.

“We let those dozers get in there,” he said. “We used to wallow right down in the middle of it. We’d reshape the bottom and side. It was almost like having the Big Ditch come down through there.

“We’d pull every tree and plant grass in there. It looked good, carried a lot of water. But it didn’t make the environmentalists very happy.”

The tracks of the heavy equipment pick up dirt and move it to another location in the bed, which the Environmental Protection Agency and Corps of Army Engineers told the county was illegal, Weber said.

So the county switched to a surgical approach. Instead of putting the equipment in the beds, crews use it to work from the sides and scoop out the debris. And instead of working a creek from bridge to bridge, the county now picks six or so crucial spots along the creek to work.

“Does it take longer? Yes and no,” Weber said. “In the surgical mode, we don’t touch everything in a mile.”

One of the places where the county got in trouble with the EPA two years ago was at Dry Creek, north of 21st Street and 135th Street West. They only resumed work on that area earlier this year.

“We had literally violated enough stuff that EPA was down here on cease and desist,” Weber said. “We spent 18 months trying to go forward. We weren’t up to speed on what we should have been doing. We’ve been educated.”

That includes learning about the habitat of the eastern spotted skunk, which is on the state’s threatened species list and is protected. The environment at the area of Dry Creek where crews are working now is suited for the skunk, according to state officials.

“We’re having to do a lot of environmental mitigation work,” Weber said. “We’re having to go back and replant different kinds of trees and shrubberies. We clean it up and make it look nice.

“It’s made it a more complex project, but it is what it is. It’s what you have to do.”

To help protect the water quality, the county is required to replant the areas it has worked quickly so sediment doesn’t get into the stream.

“So the operation today is much more environmentally friendly than three years ago,” Weber said.

Working with partners

The county also has learned to put together plans that reduce its need for work permits, which usually leads to eight or nine agencies – everything from historical and wildlife to environmental – getting a chance to give their input.

“You want to stay away from that as much as possible and still keep the EPA and Corps happy,” Weber said. “That saves time and money” spent on doing paperwork.

“We’ve gone to a more partnering sort of a deal,” he said. “We try to get all the regulators on board with what we’re trying to do before we go. If they don’t like something that we’re planning to do, we try to modify our procedure so we can get in and do it.”

Along that line, the county speeds up its work by tailoring its surgical process so it can be approved with general permits that don’t require so many agencies signing off on it.

“For example, if you’re cleaning within 100 feet of a bridge and not really changing the opening, a general permit covers it,” Weber said. “But you have to promise you’re not going to move any dirt.”

A change in state law July 1 allows the county to save time and money because it doesn’t have to get permits to work any waterway that has a drainage basin of less than 640 acres – or one square mile. The previous minimum was 240 acres.

“That should dramatically decreases the number of permits that we’re going to have to get,” Weber said.

Almost all 1,200 miles of the county’s waterways are on private property, which means the county usually has to get the owners permission to work the creek or stream.

“We knock on doors,” Weber said. “If they don’t sign the temporary easement, we skip over it. But historically they see what’s going on, like it and say, ‘Come back and do my piece, too.’ ”