Offutt flooding SNI

The end of the Offutt Air Force Base runway under floodwater on March 17, 2019. 

At last.

After years of delays and the cruel irony of historic flooding hitting weeks before improvements were set to begin, repair and upgrades of levees at Offutt Air Force Base start this month.

The roughly $42 million in work promises to better protect Omaha’s primary sewer treatment plant, roads and other infrastructure north of the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers.

The start of construction is possible because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this week awarded a $10.3 million contract to repair two Offutt area levees severely damaged by this spring’s flooding. Raising the levees couldn’t begin before damage to the levees was addressed.

In March, historic flooding caused at least $420 million in damage at Offutt; that sum is based on a preliminary, partial estimate. Omaha’s nearby Papillion Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant sustained $35 million in damage.

Upgrading the Offutt levee had been under review for about six years, and work was poised to start this past spring when the flood hit. The March flooding and an accompanying blizzard in western Nebraska have been described as the costliest disaster in state history.

This came after catastrophic flooding in 1993 and 2011 that underscored a need for enhanced levees along the Missouri. Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, also highlighted a national problem with levees.

Various agencies are collaborating so that the two Offutt area projects — repairing and upgrading — can be done in tandem.

“We’re ecstatic,” said John Winkler, general manager for the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, which is overseeing upgrades to the levee. Winkler said the NRD’s work will be simultaneous to the work by the corps.

“It’s a big enough project that we can be working in areas where they don’t need to be,” Winkler said. “This will make it more efficient — it will save us both money.”

Repairs to the levees are being funded by the federal government. The raising of the levees is being funded by the NRD, the State of Nebraska, the Cities of Omaha and Bellevue and Sarpy County.

Each project is crucial to reducing the flood threat to Offutt and nearby infrastructure, Winkler and others have said. Repairs led by the corps will return the levees to their pre-flood condition, meaning they will be ready for next spring’s flood season. A Washington state firm, IE-Weston Federal Service JVB LLC, will be doing repairs and has been given 90 days to complete the work.

The raising and widening of levees — and accompanying improvements — is projected to cost between $32 million and $35 million, according to the NRD. When the upgrades are complete, the levees will be 1 to 3 feet higher and 2 to 4 feet wider. That work, awarded to a Canadian firm, Graham Construction, is expected to take two years.

The NRD says those improvements should largely protect Offutt and the sewage treatment plant against the level of flooding that occurred this spring. The improvements also should eliminate the need for the Herculean effort required in 2011 to save the sewer plant and Offutt from that flood.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is using an expedited contracting procedure on repairs to make it easier for the NRD to work hand in hand with the corps, corps official Bret Budd said.

Budd, chief of the corps’ Omaha District Systems Restoration Team, said the corps designed the repair contract around a cost-reimbursement process.

It’s not a contracting process that’s being widely used along the river this summer, said Matthew Krajewski, readiness branch chief for the Omaha district of the corps. The process has been used to close breaches to L550, a levee in northwest Missouri where ongoing flooding is a potential threat to Interstate 29.

The Offutt levees, known as R616-613, run about 19 miles.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.