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Flood-control plans pushed back

By JOY BROWN
STAFF WRITER

The final report detailing Blanchard River flood-control plans may not be complete until 2016, a year later than previously announced, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday.

Corps officials blamed the delay on the complexity of the region’s flooding problem.

Because this “chief’s report” is needed to seek federal funding for construction, that would mean any flood-control projects probably would not start until more than a decade after the disastrous 2007 flood.

It’s a timeline that regional officials are calling “unacceptable,” but one that the corps had said from the start would be likely.

Updated “tentative plans” for flood control are now expected to be released no earlier than September, the corps said. Those concepts will then be discussed by the public and reviewed by state agencies.

The September date also constitutes a yearlong delay. In December 2012, the corps said updated plans for review and comment would be ready by the fall of 2013.

Corps representatives said Wednesday they briefed regional officials earlier this week about the project’s status. Those meetings were private and not publicly announced.

Dave Romano, chief of planning for the corps’ Buffalo District, said officials in Findlay and Ottawa had “very pointed” thoughts about speeding up the process.

“The timeline at this point in time is unacceptable,” Mayor Lydia Mihalik said Wednesday. “It’s unacceptable to me, and it’s unacceptable to the public which has been supportive of the corps’ efforts for the past few years.”

“All the local and federal folks are in agreement that even the 18-month timeline is unacceptable, so it has to be improved,” said Hancock County Commissioner Phil Riegle.

Congressional representatives who have backed the Blanchard River flood-control study and helped to secure funding for it agreed.

In a joint statement Wednesday, U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and U.S. Rep. Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green, said they will “continue to work with the corps to ensure the report is completed in a timely manner.”

“It is important that the Army Corps of Engineers and all stakeholders work together to complete the study as soon as possible. The Ottawa and Findlay communities are ready to move forward into the next stage and address the flooding,” the federal legislators said.

Mihalik and Riegle said expedited methods must be identified and used that will result in a final plan no later than 2015.

Romano said the corps has heard the concerns and will address them.

The flood-control study was launched in 2008 following the August 2007 flood, which was the second-highest in the region’s history. At the time, the corps said such studies typically take about a decade to complete.

City and county officials, along with heads of some of the largest regional businesses, hoped to make this study an exception to that rule.

The Blanchard River Flood Mitigation Coalition, a public/private partnership, was formed to find ways to speed up the study. The corps has repeatedly lauded that effort, noting work conducted by regional engineers and other volunteers.

The study was even included in a corps “fast-track” pilot study, aimed at identifying ways to reduce the corps’ red tape.

The corps said different methods it has allowed for the Blanchard River study, specifically doing work concurrently rather than sequentially, have benefited the area and helped with other corps projects.

But the public hasn’t heard from the corps about river flood-reduction ideas since December 2012, when it unveiled potential ideas that included a western diversion channel around Findlay.

Other ideas were having a large water-detention area near the Boy Scout camp south of Findlay, and building a levee to stop the flooding Blanchard River from overflowing into Lye Creek south of the Findlay reservoirs.

The levee would cause the flood level to increase in three eastern Findlay neighborhoods by about 2.5 inches, the corps said.

Plans in Ottawa involved modifying the I-9 bridge embankment, and creating a diversion channel there.

After those ideas were unveiled, regional officials proposed different ideas.

In August 2013, Hancock County Commissioner Brian Robertson said the commissioners had requested that the corps consider building the western diversion channel next to Aurand Run, instead of digging it into a glacial groove that would take up more farmland.

Using the groove would cost less, but Robertson contended the Aurand Run diversion option would be worth the added expense. He had hoped the idea would be an acceptable alternative to the farming community, but farmers still opposed it.

Robertson at the time said the proposal wouldn’t slow the flood-control project down.

Funding to complete the study was solidified earlier this year. Last month, the corps said it had allocated $1.5 million, or half the amount needed for an environmental review. Hancock County is footing the bill for the other half.

The county sets aside about $2.5 million annually from a half-percent sales tax approved by voters in 2009. Findlay also contributed $1.8 million from a three-year, quarter-percent income tax increase that voters approved that same year.

To date, the flood study has cost about $6 million in federal, state and local dollars. Cost estimates for the construction project have ranged from $111 million to $200 million.

The corps made Wednesday’s announcement about the new timeline at an 8:30 a.m. press conference at the Hancock County Engineer’s Office. The Courier and WFIN didn’t attend because they did not receive notification. Corps representatives said they sent news releases on Monday but neither news outlet has evidence of that.

Mayor Mihalik said she heard about the press conference less than 24 hours beforehand, and had a scheduling conflict that prohibited her from attending.

On numerous occasions, the corps has met privately with elected officials at various levels of government to discuss the progress of its flood-control study. Its secrecy has met with criticism over the years.

The agricultural community protested a private meeting the corps scheduled with regional officials, economic development leaders and congressmen in July 2013. Plainclothes police were present to ensure safety.

After confronting officials in Findlay Municipal Building hallways, some farmers and members of the press were allowed into that meeting.

Courier reporter Denise Grant contributed to this story.

Brown: 419-427-8496
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Twitter: @CourierJoy

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