Salina Needs A Healthy, Flowing River
KSAL Staff - October 20, 2013 7:49 pm
Troy Vancil is a Salina contractor and president of the Friends of the River.
It is hard to fathom that just a little over seven years ago six people met for coffee on a Saturday morning to discuss the condition of our river. We knew about its terrible condition but little of how it had gotten to that point. From the start, we knew our mission was about education, only it was we who needed educating.
I had lived in this town for 43 years, yet I did not know how important that river channel was to our flood protection or how much it meandered through our town. For as long as I could remember, it was overgrown and more closely resembled a wooded area.
I still remember my first conversation with a city engineer and telling him that we wanted the water to again flow through the channel, that we wanted our river back. I was told that Salina depends on the Smoky Hill River channel for flood protection and that basically it’s a storm drainage ditch.
Flash forward to today. We now know a healthy, flowing river cannot only coexist with our flood protection but also can possibly enhance it. With a cleaned-out channel and a sediment basin to capture incoming sediment, we can improve our floodwater storage and help maintain it.
We looked at other towns. In Pueblo, Colo., what they did with their river was striking, but what really stood out was the process that they engaged in.
Don Brandes, Design Studios West, traveled to Pueblo to listen. His company had prepared master plans for cities both large and small, but the process was the same: Engage the community in a meaningful, open discussion on what citizens would like to see.
In Salina, Don spent the entire first phase listening to people. At the 2009 Smoky Hill River Festival, citizens placed dots on a map of the seven-mile stretch of river through the heart of Salina. Each dot represented specific activities citizens envisioned for improvement and inclusion. The finished map contained over 2,900 dots. This became the foundation for the master plan that the city in 2011 incorporated into its comprehensive plan.
If the input received throughout 2009-10 had indicated that the community did not want its river returned, that would have been the end of The Friends of the River. In 2010, over 700 people visited the Art Center Warehouse in a six-hour window to view and provide input to the river master plan. Salinans have been and continue to be interested in seeing the return of their river.
At the end of the master planning process, discussions centered on whether the project was ready to seek funding. I asked why we, in that room, should decide if Salina is ready for the project? That is why I went before our city commission three years ago and asked that the sales tax be put on the ballot. I did not try to persuade three out of five commissioners to fund the project through capital improvements. I wanted Salina, as a whole, to set the course.
One hears that hindsight is 20/20. I think it is more like 20/15. We asked the citizens to make a decision; however, did we have all of the information they needed to make that decision?
A master plan is a comprehensive wish list of what we would like to see if money were not part of the equation. But money is always part of the equation.
In the river renewal process, we not only have to weigh the cost of the improvements but also to understand that doing nothing carries a cost. Since the channel is used to store floodwater, we are losing capacity by not having a way to minimize silt accumulation.
In the Wilson Study completed in the 1970s, it was determined that over 25,000 tons of silt enter the river channel annually through storm water runoff. If excess silt must be removed, conservation and/or replacement of impacted wetlands must be addressed. Over the last 20 years the channel, as it goes around Oakdale Park, is being overtaken by cat tails. Will we wake up one day and have to rename the river festival the Cat Tail Festival?
Before voting again on the river project, I would also want to know what the project’s benefits. Will it impact my community in a positive way for years to come?
On Monday, Tom Martin, with ConsultEcon, will be in Salina to present the results of an economic impact study his firm has just completed. I would encourage everyone to come to a public meeting at 7 p.m. Salina Area Chamber of Commerce annex building.
I was asked recently on a radio show how long the Friends of the River have been at this. I started to answer seven years, but then I remembered about the previous attempts to get water flowing in our river again and instead answered “over 40 years.”
Even if our organization were to disband tomorrow, the idea of returning water to our river channel would live on. The only thing I know for certain is that costs will continue to escalate. My hope is that over the next few years we can more precisely define costs associated with the project. Only then will voters be able to make an informed decision regarding how to be good stewards of this precious resource.