Quick as a thunder crack, the heavens over the nation’s midsection can open up and unleash a deluge. Sometimes the result can be catastrophic. That makes flood prevention one of the key needs for our region.
Consider the rains that struck the upper reaches of the Missouri River in the spring of 2011. The downpour was torrential. As The World-Herald’s David Hendee later described it, “Montana received a year’s worth of rain in a matter of weeks.”
The water volume exceeded the capacity of the Army Corps of Engineers’ six-dam network by 20 percent. The result — the Great Flood of 2011.
Recent years have brought a series of flood traumas to Iowa. In 2008, extraordinary damage resulted when rains sent the Cedar River overflowing in eastern Iowa. One-tenth of Cedar Rapids residents were evacuated. Damages to the city exceeded $5 billion. When the Iowa River overflowed its banks in Iowa City that summer, the waters flooded 20 buildings at the University of Iowa.
In 2010, Ames was struck by a summer downpour that left up to 9½ inches of rain over a three-day period. One person died, 56,000 residents temporarily were without drinking water, and property damage at Iowa State University totaled between $30 million and $40 million.
What about the Omaha area — could something on that general scale happen here? It’s a genuine concern.
In 2010, the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District drew on data from the National Weather Service and looked at the projected flood effects should the Omaha area be hit by an Ames-scale deluge. The findings indicated that the Papillion Creek Watershed would indeed see major flooding.
The estimates included $490 million in building damage, $189 million in damage to public infrastructure and displacement of 7,100 people.
On a similar note, in 2010 the Federal Emergency Management Agency expanded the floodplain area in its maps for the Papillion Creek Watershed, taking in an additional 740 homes.
Meanwhile, development continues in the Omaha area, and the added pavement from new streets, businesses and homes means greater runoff and flooding potential.
The good news is that the Omaha area has been proactive in the face of this challenge. A key step came in 2001, when local governments joined together to form the Papillion Creek Watershed Partnership. This collaborative effort has created a regional plan for flood prevention and safeguarding of water quality, with the NRD as the lead agency.
The NRD has been putting aside $5 million annually in reserves since 2005 for flood control, but a pay-as-you-go approach would be insufficient to meet the overall flood prevention needs. So, in 2009 the Nebraska Legislature gave the NRD bonding authority to finance part of $134 million worth of flood control work in the Papillion Creek watershed.
Lawmakers limited that authority, setting a maximum dam size and requiring that bonding account for no more than 1 cent of the NRD’s maximum 4.5-cent property tax authority.
The multi-county Watershed Partnership has prioritized its dam projects and re-evaluates them every three years. In 2010, the NRD board began drawing on its bonding authority. This spring, the board approved a $42 million dam project on the North Branch West Papillion Creek near 168th and Fort Streets.
The dam will create a 225-acre lake and contain stormwater runoff from an upstream area of about 11 square miles. It will contribute significantly to flood control prevention.
Important, too, is the NRD’s current $35 million dam project on Westmont Creek in Sarpy County, just north of Werner Park.
Our region does live with the potential for a catastrophic deluge. Which makes us fortunate to have this impressive, long-standing partnership across county lines to tackle flood control in a practical, cooperative manner.