The Douglas County Board voted Tuesday to stick its toe into a controversy swirling over a potential dam that could take farmers’ land to help reduce the severity of future urban flooding in Omaha.
The structure is the Thomas Creek Dam, also known as Dam Site 10. It could be built near the intersection of Nebraska Highways 36 and 133 in northern Douglas County, and also involve southern Washington County. It’s part of a raft of flood control projects — including a dam in Sarpy County, higher levees and new floodwalls — under consideration for protecting central Omaha and other areas in the Papillion Creek system.
The study that includes those projects was funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District. The Thomas Creek Dam idea has been floated since the 1970s. Farmers who would have lost land to it fought it in court and won. The idea has come back, as a “dry dam” without a standing reservoir most of the time, after the corps concluded that it was economically feasible and could merit federal funding.
The County Board has no actual jurisdiction over the issue. But it has thrown its political weight on the farmers’ side in the past. Over the past month, both sides — one week the farmers, another week NRD officials and a Nebraska Furniture Mart lawyer — have made their case at board meetings.
On Tuesday, the board tried to thread the needle. It passed a resolution to support an independent economic feasibility analysis of the Thomas Creek Dam and the entire Corps/NRD study by a UNO professor, Steven Shultz. He has criticized NRD proposals in the past for not fully considering economic feasibility of its projects. The resolution also expresses support for considering alternatives to a dam, such as low-impact development and restoring natural ecosystems.
The Washington County Board last week approved spending $15,000 for the study, which could cost $30,000. But the Douglas County resolution does not commit any Douglas County money for the study, as had been proposed in a resolution that was pulled from the board agenda March 23. Instead, the county will provide data to Shultz. County Board member Maureen Boyle, who proposed the resolution, said she didn’t want to appear to be taking sides.
“The NRD’s a governmental body and we’re a governmental body,” Boyle said. “I didn’t want to put money behind something that would be going against what they’re saying.”
She said Douglas County citizens, including the affected farmers, will be affected by what’s decided, and have brought the issue to the County Board.
“We’re walking a fine line,” Boyle said. “I just feel like we need more objective data.”
But Shultz told the board he is not sure if he will do the study now that Douglas County isn’t pitching in. Someone would help fund it, he said, but they likely would be on one side or the other.
“I generally only do projects that are funded by objective government entities,” he said.