This fall’s flooding and cooler weather highlight the race that contractors, cities and natural resource districts are in to get the Omaha area’s flood-fighting levees in better shape before winter comes.
The need is pressing: September saw the sixth-highest water level recorded on the Missouri River at Omaha, 30.58 feet. And 2019 had already set two higher water marks, including during the massive March floods.
In communities downriver, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with state and local governments, expect to pay contractors more than $1.1 billion to repair levees damaged by March flooding.
Progress is being made: Contractors have closed 13 of 32 levee breaches along the Missouri River, said Bret Budd, who heads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team restoring them.
The corps aims to close the last Missouri River levee breach letting water onto land in November, and contractors are already starting work on tributary projects near Gretna, Broken Bow, Columbus and Scribner.
But wet weather has folks worried.
“We’re going to have high flows in the river at least through October,” Budd said. “All of the projections ... are for a colder and wetter winter than normal. There’s no good news in any of it.”
The corps said it expects to need two years to get the levee system back to its pre-flood condition. Governments, to access federal funds, typically must repair federal levees before they can improve them.
One local exception, for national security, is the levee system protecting Offutt Air Force Base. The base sustained up to $1 billion in damage in March. Its levees are being repaired and built higher and wider at the same time.
The same levee system also protects Omaha’s sewage treatment plant in Bellevue. Water got inside the levees near the Papillion Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in March, causing more than $45 million in damage to the levees and the plant.
Other repairs in and around the Omaha area include levee work along the Big and Little and West Papillion Creeks and design work for more permanent repairs to the breached levee that flooded Valley in March, said John Winkler, general manager of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District. That levee was patched in March.
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Omaha has seen far less flooding than many of its neighbors, thanks to its location on higher ground, and its levees and flood walls. But the city is doing some repairs, too, including to floodgates on pipes under the levees north of downtown.
The main challenge Omaha faces from a higher Missouri River is finding a way to pump out water that pools on the inside of the levee after heavy rains, Public Works officials say, including near the CHI Health Center arena and convention center.
The city hired HDR Inc. several years ago to study any repairs or upgrades the levee system might need to keep local property out of the 100-year floodplain under new Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines.
That study is not yet complete, and final costs are not yet known.
Jim Theiler, assistant director of Public Works, said the city plans to bolster some levees with more soil and wells to prevent seepage. It will do whatever is required to meet federal guidelines.
For that purpose, the city is trying to buy small strips of undeveloped land near Abbott Drive and Freedom Park Road, along with some land near rail lines near the Missouri River. In September, the Omaha City Council authorized Public Works to negotiate with landowners to buy the land.
The city is also looking at building a flood wall for its other sewage treatment plant, the Missouri River Wastewater Treatment Plant in South Omaha. It has used a temporary berm in recent years to hold back floodwaters and would like a more lasting solution, Theiler said. At least one building sustained minor damage in the March flooding.
What protects Omaha from flooding
The Omaha area’s robust flood protections — knock on wood — are built to keep water out or contained. Most recently, they did their job during the record-setting flooding of March 2019 that turned neighboring towns to islands and caused, so far, hundreds of millions in damage to homes, roads, bridges, fields and livestock. We look in greater detail at the protections in place that guard Omaha. Sources: National Weather Service; City of Omaha; City of Council Bluffs; Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District; World-Herald archives.