EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two stories about past flood-control plans in Findlay, and what happened to those proposals.
By J. STEVEN DILLON
Engineers won’t have to reinvent the wheel if the Blanchard River widening project in Findlay proceeds this year.
The idea to broaden the river just west of downtown, after all, isn’t exactly a new concept.
Hancock County’s latest flood-control proposal got the go-ahead Tuesday from the Maumee Watershed Conservancy District board, subject to further review and approval by the Maumee Conservancy District’s court next month.
If it feels like deja vu, it should.
While the project was recently recommended by Stantec engineers as one of the best ways to reduce Findlay’s flooding, the concept surfaced almost 30 years ago.
It was first proposed in 1989, and again in 1992, when it was approved by Findlay City Council. Both times, however, the project hit snags, once because of environmental concerns, the other after the federal government yanked project funding. That proved to be the fatal blow to the project.
While there is no way of knowing how much the ’90s plan would have reduced flood damage during the 2007 flood, had river widening been completed, it likely would have been significant.
At the time, planners said it would reduce flooding during a 100-year flood by about 1 foot in downtown Findlay. That would have had an impact on 612 residences and 432 businesses in the city in 2007.
But one thing is certain: Had the Blanchard River been widened 25 years ago, it would have cost far less money than it will now.
The idea of widening the river surfaced in a 1987 study that followed the June 1981 flood.
That one is considered the third worst in county history, behind only the 1913 and 2007 floods.
The biggest push for flood control then came not from the city of Findlay, but from rural landowners concerned about property damage when the Blanchard overflowed.
The study was done by the Soil Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and while no solution was found that wouldn’t require a significant loss of farmland, it did identify one project in Findlay.
It called for widening 3,300 feet of the river to 90 feet wide between the Liberty Street dam, west of Cory Street, and the Broad Avenue bridge.
In the plan, the Liberty Street dam would be eliminated, and another dam upstream of the Main Street bridge would be constructed in order to maintain water in the river during periods of low flow.
The initial proposal, which was presented to City Council in 1989, never got off the ground after the EPA put a halt to it, saying fish habitat in that area of the river would be disrupted.
Three years later, in 1992, the plan resurfaced. It addressed the EPA concerns by constructing a “flood shelf” to preserve fish habitat.
By the time the plan was approved by council in November 1992, the river widening had a price tag of $873,600. Federal funds would have picked up 75 percent of the cost, or about $626,000, leaving the city’s share at about $250,000.
But it may have cost the city even less, had it proceeded.
Then Safety-Service Director Dave Wobser said in a Nov. 11, 1992 story that the city’s final cost could be “less than $100,000” because relatively little land would have to be acquired and because the city’s share of project administration could be done “in house.”
In the end, though, bad timing and a lack of funding apparently doomed the plan.
In late 1992 and early 1993, the city faced lean finances. Employee insurance costs were rising, the jobless rate was increasing, and budget cuts were being discussed. A Dec. 11, 1992, headline painted the picture: “City’s Budget Woes Prompt Heated Debate.”
The flood project seemed to fall from the priority list and then, when the federal money was withdrawn, local officials decided Findlay could not proceed on its own, even though the cost was still under $1 million.
Flood-control studies and plans died on the vine, just as they had in the 1960s after an Army Corps of Engineers study was done following two 1959 floods.
While the estimated cost of the 1992 plan paled in comparison to the $20 million estimated cost of the current project, flood czar Steve Wilson said it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison.
For example, the earlier project would not have involved major changes to the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge, whereas the current one calls for $2.5 million to $3 million in bridge modifications.
Inflation also would need to be factored in.
While the Army Corps did not specifically address the river widening idea in its recent study of the watershed, officials have said the idea was ruled out because of lingering environmental concerns about the Brandman Corp. site. The tire dump and junkyard, formerly located on the west side of North Cory Street, was adjacent to the river.
Both Wobser and Jim Paul, then head of the Findlay Water Pollution Control Center, recalled this week that there were concerns about the Brandman property, in terms of flood control, in the 1990s. But both felt the plan ultimately failed because of the lack of funding, rather than possible problems with the Brandman property.
On Tuesday, Wilson said Stantec, which is involved in the engineering of the current project, is aware of the possible Brandman property issues, but believes any contaminated soil there can be hauled away from the site without great cost.
While river widening didn’t get done, the 1992 plan did produce several flood-control ideas that would eventually be put into place.
Riffle structures, consisting of large rocks meant to aerate water and to enhance water quality and fish habitat, were proposed in 1992 for two locations upstream of Cory Street and Blanchard Street.
Both have since been installed, along with two additional riffle structures.
The plan also called for an $82,000 flood-warning system: gauges positioned along the Blanchard River, Lye Creek and Eagle Creek to feed information to a computer model of the river, and alert officials and the public when flooding conditions exist.
Had it been installed then, the city’s share would have been just $20,000.
Eventually, a five-gauge, $266,000 flood-warning system went online in November 2007, less than three months after the August 2007 flood.
Findlay paid for half of the warning system’s cost, with the rest paid by the United States Geological Survey.
NEXT: Findlay refuses to undertake 1962 flood-protection plan.