After flood waters nearly topped the Manhattan levee in 1993 due to water releases from Tuttle Creek Reservoir of 58,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and flows on the Kansas River reaching 100,000 cfs, the city began a two decade long process with the Army Corps of Engineers to increase its height and improve its gatewell structures.

City Commission Tuesday unanimously voted to enter into a public partnership agreement with the Corps to officially move forward with the project and authorize final design and construction. The total cost is estimated at more than $30 million to be split with the federal government 65/35 — leaving the city responsible for $10.5 million for the base project as well as acquisition of right of ways and easements.

“I think if you ask the public right now this would be a no-brainer, they would really scold us if we thought this was a bad idea,” says Mayor Mike Dodson, adding that it would be hard to get federal help again if they vote not to move forward with the project.

According to City Engineer Brian Johnson the levee protects 11,000 residents from requiring evacuation and $1.4 billion in infrastructure and assets from a 1951 style flood, which resulted in feet of water pooling in Downtown Manhattan. Commissioner Wynn Butler says they can’t risk an event like that, adding that he doesn’t think the community would fully recover from such a flood today.

“To me this is the number one core project and it has to be funded because the risk is just not worth taking without it,” says Butler. “And I’m one that never votes to raise the mill levy, but I probably would to support this if I had to.”

The city and Corps began evaluating the levee system in 1998, that reconnaissance study finding that it did not provide the protection that was originally intended as it should have been able to withstand flows “significantly higher” than experienced in 93. Following that, the Corps embarked on a feasibility study that looked at multiple alternatives on how to improve the levee system — which in 2015 was completed and they determined that raising the earthen structure 1.5 to 3.5 feet at various points along its 14,000 foot length and multiple improvements of its gatewell structures was the best option to better protect the community.

Federal funding for design and construction of the improvements was awarded in 2017 and the city approved a design agreement with the Corps in 2018. Johnson says the Corps has received federal funding in fiscal year 2021 to finalize the design and begin work and if the city opted not to go forward now then they would likely use that money elsewhere.

There were also multiple other “betterments” beyond the base requirements of improving the levee identified that the city has previously been looking at and could save costs on by planning them now and including it in the 65/35 funding split with the federal government — or they could hold off and shoulder the full cost of design, the city would be responsible for 100 percent of the funding for construction either way.

Betterments include upsizing the pipe going through the levee at the Tuttle Creek Boulevard North Ditch to route more water from north of Bluemont Avenue to the other side of the levee and construction of a gatewell west of the Wastewater Treatment Plant to increase stormwater capacity near and around McCall Road. Adding the betterments raises the city’s responsibility for the project to $13.4 million.

Mayor Pro Tempore Usha Reddi says she doesn’t think the city is in a position not to do the project and also expressed support for moving ahead with the betterments.

“That’s something that if we don’t do now, not only are we going to pay more in the finances but probably with lives,” says Reddi.

Commissioner Jerred McKee says he supports the project, but was concerned with how they’d manage to fund it — especially if the 0.3 percent sales tax doesn’t pass in November.

“Kind of feels like the second meeting in a row where it feels like I’m voting on something where we really don’t have a clear revenue source of how we’re going to pay for it,” says McKee.

In addition to the proposed sales tax, other funding possibilities discussed were an increase in stormwater fees, property tax increases or a mix of funding between those and sales tax funded accounts. Debt payments come online in a few years, giving the city a little time to work out the details.

Brandon Irwin of the Flint Hills Wellness Coalition spoke during public comment asking what the impact would be on Northview, concerned that the neighborhood was not being considered in the discussion. Once public comment closed, Johnson could respond and says studies show in an event where releases nearly doubled 93’s numbers, the neighborhood would see 1 to 3 inches more water in areas already flooded by 5 to 8 feet.

Commissioner Linda Morse says she supports the plan as it’s important to the community, but also says they need to find ways to better protect Northview as well.

“There’s another area as big as this downtown area, but because it doesn’t have businesses in it it’s not regarded as as important,” says Morse. She echoed concerns expressed by Irwin about development in the area and says the city should strongly consider halting future building around Northview and possibly requiring new construction to be elevated a foot higher than current regulations require.

The initial studies did look at the cost of extending the levee north 3.3 miles, between 30 and 7 feet high as needed, as well. The Corps found that the cost of that would add $50 million to the project, which was determined was too high and the current plan had the highest cost for its benefit.

“So it’s not like we didn’t look at alternatives for the area outside of the levee,” says Public Works Director Rob Ott. “Just understand if the community or the commission wanted to move forward — it would be all on us.”

The timeline shows construction beginning in February 2021 and running through January 2023, eventually being turned over to the City for maintenance and operations in May 2023.

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