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Debate continues over Cottonwood River flood reduction

Everybody agrees the Cottonwood River is prone to flooding. The question is how to minimize that risk, and there isn't a lot of agreement on that front.

The Cottonwood flooding situation and potential solutions were discussed at a two-hour meeting Tuesday at the Bowyer Community Building.

Two main solutions were put forth: one using a series of small, so-called watershed dams to "catch rain where it falls," the other creating a large reservoir the likes of Marion, Council Grove or John Redmond.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data says Marion Reservoir has a catchment area of about 200 square miles and Council Grove Reservoir's area covers about 250 square miles. That leaves roughly 3,000 square miles with no large retention lake, and many in the audience felt that was enough to start considering a new reservoir. Water Office Director Tracy Streeter, one of the presenters, says there are a lot of issues with that approach.

"When you think about building an 8,000-acre lake with a footprint of twice that size, you're not going to get willing sellers at that level. Private property rights in this state are just a huge issue. Most of these folks that have the power of eminent domain in their watershed districts are unwilling to use it because that's their neighbors and it's a locally led process," Streeter said. "You can do a lot of things with a large reservoir, but the obstacles are much larger than overcoming the obstacles to continuing the watershed flood control program."

That doesn't factor in environmental issues, including endangered species like the Neosho mad tom or the Topeka swiper. It does factor in sedimentation, something Streeter says was a critical element in the state and the Corps of Engineers deciding to dredge John Redmond instead of building new. 

On the other side of the debate, however, is the fact the smaller watershed ponds -- which affect a drainage basin of up to three miles -- won't collect enough water to stop flooding. The state has close to 30 watershed dams under consideration for the Cottonwood basin.

Rural Emporian Gail Fuller, an advocate of no-till farming and cover crops, says that model could help -- but he was hoping for more answers.

"We all know we have a problem but I didn't hear any options on how to fix it," he said.

Local lawmakers organized the discussion, and Sen. Jeff Longbine was pleased with the discussion.

"There is a tremendous amount of work to be done. As we talked about, these solutions don't come easily and there are a lot of challenges we have to overcome, whether that be funding, whether that be planning, whether that be federal regulations," he said.

Rep. Don Hill was glad to have some direction.

"The thing I'm most interested in is the watershed facilities that have been planned and are on the drawing board but haven't been built out," he said.

Rep. Peggy Mast says there is a lot of work ahead.

"We need to use every resource we can," she said. "I hope we can get an accurate profit-loss statement because I'm sure the cost of addressing [flooding] will be cheaper than reacting to the floods."

County Commissioner and Reading resident Scott Briggs says it's important something move forward.

"There's no silver bullet to any of this. It's going to have to be watersheds. It's going to have to be conservation methods. It's going to need a lot of input," he said.

Residents like Fuller would prefer not to have more meetings, but there may well be more coming. Streeter says he plans to work up some options and present those within "a few months."

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