Salina residents to vote on restoring river

SALINA — When a bypass channel cut off the flow of the Smoky Hill River through downtown Salina 50 years ago, it also swept away much of the city's identity and history, according to people working to have the river restored.

They are pushing a 10-year, $27 million plan to return the river to its original channel, which was once a gathering spot for families and recreation.

The proposal hinges on a Nov. 2 vote on a 0.25 percent sales tax, which is expected to raise $25 million to $28 million over 10 years.

The vote is essentially about the city's identity, City Manager Jason Gage said.

"We don't have a river today," Gage said. "When you look across town, you see Smoky Hill this and Smoky Hill that, all named for the Smoky Hill River. This community grew up on the Smoky Hill River; it is our history and identity. Our identity has been gone since about 1960."

Water is allowed to flow through downtown Salina only during the Smoky Hill River Festival, or if there is a heavy rain. That's been the procedure since the early 1960s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the channel to eliminate periodic flooding.

In 1951, water covered half of the city, the Salina Journal reported.

"The river is on a flat plain and it just backed up when it rained," former Salina Mayor Steve Ryan said. "We really needed flood control."

The corps built the channel between 1957 and 1961, and a levee system was constructed around the city.

Troy Vancil, president of the Friends of the River Foundation, said people didn't realize the water was disappearing until 1967, when low levels made boating impossible. Before then, people gathered on the river for recreation and picnics at two city parks near the water.

"The corps did a fine job of diverting the water, but we didn't consider (losing) the water going through the channel," Ryan said. "It was a wonderful thing that was overlooked."

The city tried several times in intervening years to restore the water, but those efforts failed. In the 1980s, the city dredged silt from the channel, raised the height of the levee and cleaned out limbs and branches.

"It got put on the 'too-hard pile,' because seven miles of river is quite a bit and it is going to cost money," Gage said. "There is no way to avoid that, and if it had been free, we would have done it already."

Ryan, who is co-chairman of Friends of the River, said earlier efforts were hampered because sales tax financing wasn't available and the city couldn't get a recreational water permit for the river. The city now has that permit.

Wright Water Engineers of Denver has created a $74 million, multiphase project that would take up to 50 years to complete. The sales tax vote next month would fund the first phase.

If the proposal passes, water could be flowing through Salina within three to four years, Vancil said.