Park flooding

Gene Maffit, South Sioux City Parks and Recreation director, stands at a row of campsite utility boxes Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, at Scenic Park, the city's campground along the Missouri River. River flooding prompted the closure of the park's lower camp sites for most of the summer and the sites will not be able to be re-opened until electrical hook-ups are repaired. The city is discussing building a flood wall to protect Scenic Park from future floods. 

SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. (AP) — Gene Maffit walks past the barricades that have fallen over, blocking entrance into the lowest section of Scenic Park.

If 2020 is anything like 2018 and 2019, South Sioux City’s parks and recreation director might want to keep the barricades handy.

The popular South Sioux City park offers campers scenic views of the Missouri River, which flows past nearby. But for the past two summers, the view has been a little too close.

Flooding closed this section of the park for part of 2018 and much of 2019, costing the city thousands of dollars in damage and lost revenue from camping fees.

City officials say it’s time to take steps to prevent future flooding.

“We have to do something. We can’t just let this thing flood and flood and flood,” South Sioux City Mayor Rod Koch told the Sioux City Journal.

One solution is a flood wall to protect the city’s riverside attractions.

The city has submitted a Hazard Mitigation Notification of Interest with the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency for a project that calls for a 3,500-foot earthen berm that would extend from roughly the Norm Waitt YMCA past the Dible Soccer Complex, part of which also was under water in 2019.

The project will be considered by a governor’s task force, and there is no deadline for when it must determine if it will support the project, a NEMA spokeswoman said.

If it’s approved, the city would begin a lengthy process of completing cost/benefit and environmental studies, securing permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and determining how far and high the wall should be and whether it would be an earthen berm or built from some other material.

And there’s the biggest unknown: cost. Estimates have yet to be compiled.

“It’s going to be expensive, but we’ve got to put a stop to the flooding along there,” Koch said.

As a mitigation project, the Federal Emergency Management Agency could fund 75 percent of the project, NEMA 12.5 percent and the city the remaining share. Koch said he hopes the city council can begin putting away money for a wall or other flood protection project in the 2020-21 fiscal year budget, which will be developed in coming months.

Maffit said building a wall all the way past the soccer fields is likely not feasible. If a wall is built, it likely would be roughly 1,500 feet from the YMCA to just east of the Scenic Park campgrounds. The city could extend the wall in the future, but studies would have to show that a flood wall wouldn’t push flooding into other areas downstream.

“We certainly do not want to cause flooding for someone else to protect soccer fields,” Maffit said.

Koch said city officials began considering mitigation options probably two years ago. Now, after two straight summers of flooding at Scenic Park, flood protection has taken on more urgency. The city can’t continue to spend money year after year on flood repairs.

“We have to stop the damage at Scenic Park,” he said.

A portion of the park was closed for a time in 2018, when flooding caused $40,805 in damages. Federal and state emergency funds paid most of the costs, and the city’s share of $5,100 had a minimal impact on the city’s budget, deputy treasurer Josiah Boneschans said.

This year’s flooding will carry a much higher price tag.

Near-record runoff into the Missouri River led to months of high water levels, which in turn left portions of Scenic Park and South Sioux City’s soccer fields under water for months, too. Not until December did the river level drop low enough to enable FEMA inspectors to get a good look at some of the damage.

Maffit said 44 of Scenic Park’s 135 electrical pedestals were damaged in the flood and must be replaced. Eight of 15 soccer fields were under water at some point during the year. Thirteen of the city’s storm sewer outlets into the river were damaged. A boat dock must be dredged. The city also incurred expenses for removal of debris and sand the river left behind in the park and soccer fields.

The city is probably looking at $1 million-$1.5 million in damages, Maffit said.

Once again, federal and state funds should pick up a majority of the costs, but the city’s also looking at a big bill. Some expenses, such as replacement of trees that were killed by flooding in the park, are not eligible for FEMA reimbursement.

It’s too early to tell what the total impact to the city budget will be, but Boneschans said he did not think it would be detrimental.

The city lost approximately $140,000 in revenue from camping fees in 2019 because of the closure of the flooded section of Scenic Park, Maffit said.

If the park can be protected from flooding, revenues generated from uninterrupted camping seasons could help a flood wall pay for itself, Koch said.

Abandoning the lower area of the park to the river is not an option, he said.

“It’s a beautiful asset to have in the city, and to let it sit there and waste it I think would be a crime,” Koch said.

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