Battle Creek community members came out in force Thursday night to voice their opinions about flood protection proposals.
More than 100 citizens and rural residents — including Mayor Barry Ponton and at least three city council members — crowded into the meeting room at the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District in Norfolk.
Many people had to stand, some in the hallway, for the 2½-hour agenda item — a far cry from the 15 to 20 people who attended a Battle Creek City Council meeting two weeks ago to vote on flood protection proposals that would be brought before the NRD.
Attendees at Thursday’s meeting repeatedly said that was because most of the community simply did not know the issue would be discussed and voted on at the recent city council meeting.
Battle Creek City Council members voted unanimously then — less one member not in attendance — to request assistance from the NRD to build a dam south of town that would create either a 160- or a 1,200-acre pool as a way to provide protection from future flooding.
Other options that had been discussed prior to the council’s vote included widening the Battle Creek and creating diversion channels.
Lalit Jha, vice president for water resources at JEO Consulting Group, gave an abbreviated PowerPoint presentation on the dam possibilities at Thursday’s meeting. Discussion then was opened to the public, and about a dozen spoke in opposition to the construction of a dam.
Many other people who had signed up to speak opted not to, after those doing so went well over their three-minute allowance and some opinions became repetitive.
Rod Zohner, a landowner who lives south of Battle Creek, said he had attended numerous meetings over the past several years, and each time a diversion channel seemed to be the flood protection option the city council had been leaning toward.
He asked Jha about how many roads would be closed if a 1,200-acre pool was created — four for sure — as well as the number of farmsteads that would be underwater — nine.
“My farm is probably at ground zero. ... If the big dam was decided on, we would be gone. ... We’ve been there 115 years,” Zohner said.
His wife, Arlene, asked Jha why the estimated cost of a diversion channel had increased over the past few years from $7 million to anywhere from $19 million to $22 million.
Jha said the land prices were not in the initial estimates for the diversion channel, although land acquisition costs had been calculated into the dam proposals — about $17 million for a 160-acre pool and about $36 million for a 1,200-acre pool.
Greg Schmidt said his 175 acres south of the proposed dam would be entirely covered by water and “that economic income will be lost forever.”
“I’m going to lose the income from that, and that farm is part of my 401(k) that I’m going to lose for retirement,” Schmidt said.
Alan Murphy, who said he has been on the Battle Creek Fire Department for 38 years, said he doesn’t think the town has done everything it could to make the creek flow properly through town.
He suggested parts of the Battle Creek be widened, as well as some ground being used to turn a 90-degree bend in the creek into a straight shot to help it flow better.
“There’s things that we can still do, and it’s not going to cost $36 million,” Murphy said.
THE NRD BOARD discussed the proposal before voting on two motions to allow letters of intent to be sent to FEMA/NEMA, as well as contracting with consulting firms to prepare documentation and a grant application.
Board members themselves had many questions for Jha and Michael Fleer, Battle Creek city administrator.
Joel Hansen said he had initially supported the idea of a diversion channel, but the floods this spring showed him that such a solution would only be “shoving the problem downstream. ... It might be good for some, but all we’re doing is passing the buck,” Hansen said.
Scott Clausen said he would like to see the community decide on its own suggestion for flood control before bringing a proposal to the NRD.
Fleer said the city council had voted for a dam, and that was the proposal being sought.
Bob Huntley said he was “really disturbed” that not many people attended the council meetings in Battle Creek and that there were more in attendance at the NRD meeting than all of the council meetings combined. He, too, asked the people of Battle Creek to make a decision.
Chad Korth, who lives and farms in Battle Creek, said the town’s elected officials did vote and it is the responsibility of community members “to know what’s going on.”
Korth said he sympathized with the landowners who would be affected by the building of a dam, but “I think about what I would have to do if I was in their spot. ... If I have to sacrifice my heritage, what my grandfather started to help the people downstream, so be it. ... The actions of one affect the lives of many,” Korth said.
After further discussion, the board voted on the two motions regarding Battle Creek flood protection.
The first motion, to direct staff to file a letter of intent with FEMA/NEMA on a mitigation project to provide flood protection for the City of Battle Creek, passed with all but Jerry Allemann and Clausen voting to approve.
The second motion also passed, with only Allemann voting against it.
That motion directs NRD manager Mike Sousek to contract with consulting firms (at a cost not to exceed $40,000) to prepare necessary documentation and complete a grant application to the state of Nebraska Water Sustainability Fund in the amount of $36 million for a lake project near Battle Creek.
The grant will be to secure funding to develop an approved plan with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Watershed Flood Protection Operations.