Flooding of thousands of acres of cropland and damage to railroad tracks and county roads might have been prevented this spring and summer.
Landowners along the Smoky Hill River in Dickinson County said that attempts were being made to shore up the banks and levees of the river but time and money prevented that from happening before the flooding this year.
The river banks and levees appear to be solely the responsibility of the landowners. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requires permits but only inspects rivers and levees that are part of a federal project or those enrolled in the levee program.
Levee and river frontage are not covered, said David Kolarik, chief of public affairs for the Kansas City District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in an email response to questions from the Reflector-Chronicle.
“For the Corps of Engineers regulatory program, we often meet with landowners at their request. We would also inspect sites when we receive reports of potentially unpermitted work,” Kolarik said.
The Corps does have a limited amount of cost-share funds to protect public infrastructure projects (a county bridge abutment, for example), but there are no programs for private individuals or enterprises.
Letter to Moran
The Dickinson County Commission approved a letter to U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, seeking funds: “Our agriculture producers have little if any recourse for assistance to repair the damages. Many of them have approached the county for assistance in making these repairs, but funds of this magnitude simply are not available at the local level,” the letter read. “As you are aware, our local economy relies heavily on the success of our friends in agriculture, and we want to do whatever we can to keep them productive.”
Moran, when visiting Abilene last week to tour the Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum, said the Corps of Engineers does have certain responsibilities.
“I need to go to work to figure out the details of this issue and see how we can encourage pressure on the Corps,” he said. “No farmer, no group of farmers can afford to do the work necessary to restore the levees.”
Damage to tracks
Kirk Whitehair, who owns land on Jeep Road, said he waited more than a year for the Corps to grant permission for him to repair the river’s levee just west of Jeep Road.
This year, flooding there closed Jeep Road and damaged railroad tracks. The Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad is still working to repair those tracks before it can continue excursions from Abilene to Enterprise.
Once Whitehair received his permit, he secured 20 loads of concrete. However, flooding occurred before he could shore up the banks.
Now there is a hole in the side of the riverbank that flooded his 160 acres of crops. Whitehair said it will now take 300 semitrailers of dirt to repair the damage.
“If it is true the Corps of Engineers was asked to help solve a problem and the problem became so much greater, than all the more reason the Corps needs to be part of the solution,” Moran said. “The question is, why was there such a delay in getting permission to occur?”
Kolarik said the application was delayed because it was not complete.
“It was essentially a request for him to provide a description of the work he was proposing to do,” Kolarik said. “Working around his farming schedule and the weather, we met with him onsite July 3, 2018.
“At that meeting, we learned that he did not have a solid plan for the proposed work and was looking for an agency that could help with the design and funding,” Kolarik said. “We provided him information on agencies that might have such services and called some of them on his behalf. In the meantime, since there wasn’t a complete permit application, the incomplete application was withdrawn.”
Working with Dickinson County officials, a complete application was submitted in October.
Ran out of time
The permit was granted in November. In the meantime, Whitehair acquired the needed concrete but didn’t have time to shore up the river’s levee before flooding.
“Maybe the thing to do is to get somebody from my office and the Corps here,” Moran said. “We’re certainly willing to be here. Maybe we can get the Corps to be here, as well.”
Chuck Clemence said Corps personnel weren’t helpful in his attempt to fix the bank of the Smoky Hill River that flooded cropland from Eden Road to Kansas Highway 15.
Banks eroded away
“The Corps of Engineers never seems to want to do much,” he said. “They could come look at things to know exactly what our problems are. Bank erosion is the first thing we need before we worry about the levees. I built a lot of dikes, but they are gone, down the river now because the banks didn’t hold.”
“We’ve have to build both back up,” Clemence said.
He said the Corps permits only allow for 500 feet.
“Well, the area is really a quarter-mile long that you need to put stuff on,” he said. “The whole river bank is gone there.”
Kolarik said that under certain circumstances, that particular limit can be waived.
“But the analysis is more complex and it requires coordination with other agencies. However, for activities that do not fall within the terms and limits of a Nationwide Permit, we can always review the request under the Individual Permit procedures,” he said.
The Corps requires a permit and charges a fee for farmers to fix the banks and levees. That fee is between $10 and $100, Kolarik said.
“And if you don’t do it their way, they will fine you for every day it is wrong,” Whitehair said. “They threaten you with that every time they talk to you.”
Whitehair and Clemence intend to fix the levees and banks as soon as it dries up.
Whitehair is hoping to get slabs of concrete from the city of Abilene and Dickinson County.
“It’s been tough. I am waiting for the start of the jail,” he said of getting the product from building demolition needed for levee repair. “I’m trying to plug the hole right now. I have a hill down in my pasture. I’ll just take that hill off and keep filling the hole all winter.
“If I don’t get that hole plugged up and we get another big rain, it will shut down Jeep Road again.”
Creek no problem
Whitehair said that if his land was on a creek, he wouldn’t have do deal with the Corps.
“I could get all the money I need to fix that, but since I am on the river, I cannot,” he said.
Moran said that Dickinson County was declared a disaster county, which means matching funds should be available.
Whitehair and Clemence said they are waiting to see what those dollars might be.
“The problem is not that we are not going to get any income off of it for a year. The problem is where do we turn for help to rebuild this levee? It is expensive,” Carol Whitehair said.
Kirk Whitehair said he has documents that show the levee was built in 1945. The flood of 1951 washed it away and the Corps of Engineers rebuilt it.
Contact Tim Horan at firstname.lastname@example.org.