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Sedgwick County grapples with clogged waterways

Published on -9/8/2013, 3:51 PM

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- Strong storms, surplus rainfall and a shortage of workers have forced Sedgwick County public works officials to reprioritize their approach to clearing debris from the 1,200 miles of creeks, streams and rivers they oversee.

Public works deputy director Jim Weber said never in his 31 years working for Sedgwick County has he seen so much debris in the waterways. Even though some areas have been worse at different times, the problem was never as widespread as it is now, he told The Wichita Eagle (http://bit.ly/14mJJdS ).

"I don't ever remember a situation like this," he said, adding that the county won't even try to keep all 1,200 miles cleaned out. "It's not even possible."

A June 27 storm packing 80 mph winds tossed limbs and trees into creeks and streams. That was followed by a five-week period through mid-August when more than 15 inches of rain fell, in addition to heavy rains upstream in Reno and Harvey counties that poured into the Little Arkansas River.

"The wind storm knocked the stuff down or loosened it up," Weber said, "and then the big rains moved a lot of bad stuff to a lot of bad places in a short amount of time."

With only four people assigned to remove debris from the waterways, the county has adopted a hot-spot list that continually has 15 to 20 priority areas that need the most urgent attention, Weber said.

Just addressing the areas on the list now would keep his stream-cleaning crew busy for the next three to five years, he said, but new debris piling up during that time will require the list to be reprioritized at some point.

There used to be six people who focused on cleaning the county's waterways, but in 2005 two of those positions were cut and the department stopped hiring summer help, said David Spears, the public works director.

The county was forced to change the way it removed debris after federal agencies learned the county was putting heavy tracked equipment in creek beds to clean them out. The tracks of the heavy equipment pick up dirt and move it to another location in the bed, and the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the county that was illegal, Weber said.

"We let those dozers get in there," he said. "We used to wallow right down in the middle of it. We'd reshape the bottom and side. It was almost like having the Big Ditch come down through there.

"We'd pull every tree and plant grass in there. It looked good, carried a lot of water. But it didn't make the environmentalists very happy."

Now, the county uses a surgical approach in which crews use the equipment from the sides to scoop out debris. Instead of working a creek from bridge to bridge, the county now picks several crucial spots along the creek to work.

"Does it take longer? Yes and no," Weber said. "In the surgical mode, we don't touch everything in a mile."

With almost all of its waterways on private property, the county usually has to get the landowner's permission to work a creek or stream.

"We knock on doors," Weber said. "If they don't sign the temporary easement, we skip over it. But historically they see what's going on, like it and say, 'Come back and do my piece, too."'

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com

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