After three-decades, Blue River Corridor flood risk management project complete

By Sara GoodeyonSeptember 14, 2016

After three-decades, Blue River Corridor flood risk management project complete
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Paul Barber, left, retired, is the former chief of Engineering Division. He oversaw the planning, design and initial construction of the Blue River Corridor project. Glen Davis, right, retired, was the chief of the Construction Division during constr... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
After three-decades, Blue River Corridor flood risk management project complete
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
After three-decades, Blue River Corridor flood risk management project complete
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – An aerial view of the lower six miles of the completed channel. The project provides a hydraulically efficient channel of 35,000 cubic feet per second capacity to move water through this industrialized corridor and significantly reduces the threat of... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A decades-long project finally came to fruition in April with the formal celebration of the completion of the Blue River Channel Project. The City of Kansas City, Mo., the Missouri and Associated River Coalition, the Kansas City Industrial Council, the Blue Valley Industrial Association and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Kansas City District gathered April 22 to dedicate the $286 million flood risk management project.

By reducing the flooding potential along the 12-and-a-half mile corridor of the Blue River, this Civil Works project is facilitating economic growth, quality of life and environmental health for the surrounding communities.

"The transformation of the Blue River Corridor is the result of the vision of the local and state leaders who in 1961 came to the Corps and asked for help in mitigating the devastating flooding that occurred along the channel," said Col. Andrew Sexton, Kansas City District commander, in remarks at the dedication.

Just as Kansas City transformed from an agricultural beginning to an industrial and transportation center, so the Blue River Corridor was transformed by the needs of the city. Its rich bottom farmlands were productive and its crossings had historical significance in the nation's westward expansion. Battles were fought for those crossings in the largest civil war engagement west of the Mississippi River. In the 19th century, the Blue River became a popular place to vacation and relax. Industry followed and capitalized on the lower Blue River for the land, transportation and labor availability.

Eventually, the river grew more constrained as the entire basin grew more urbanized. With this urban development, flooding events became more problematic, affecting a larger population and causing significant economic losses.

As early as the 1900s, flooding along the Blue River was recognized as a challenge and leaders realized something needed to be done to transform the river corridor. Kansas City, Jackson County and the Corps all conducted various studies, resulting in a 1968 plan, authorized by Congress in 1970, to provide flood damage reduction to the basin. This original plan included four flood control reservoirs, but opposition to the reservoirs jeopardized the entire project.

"However, unwilling to give up, the Corps, with the support of the City of Kansas City, came up with a revised plan that didn't include the reservoirs, but would still be effective in reducing the damages from all future floods and providing benefits to the public," said John Holm, Kansas City District chief of Civil Branch.

Improving a river channel like the Blue River Corridor, which is industrialized, is not simple and straightforward. The project encountered some significant challenges, such as:

• The daunting task of threading an improved channel through the former ARMCO Steel Corporation manufacturing facility. Challenges included the physical constraints -- buildings were built right up to the edge of the existing channel, there were numerous utility crossings that had to be relocated and contaminated soils and debris had to be dealt with.

• Throughout the 12-and-a-half miles of the river channel the engineers encountered soils that lost their strength when saturated that required innovative solutions. In the paved reach, hundreds of vertical H-piles were embedded along the slope. In some locations, it was necessary to replace weak soils with rock, which was expensive. A very innovative use of vertical sand drains that promoted drainage of the soil was developed which greatly reduced the amount of, and the cost of, the rock.

• More than a dozen railroad bridges were replaced or modified and four highway bridges were replaced. Several roads, such as the Coal Mine Road, were relocated. Every bridge modification or relocation was a challenge and required extensive coordination to insure minimal impact to the users.

• One of the river crossings along the channel was of historical significance. Byram's Ford, part of the Oregon Trail, was the site of a significant Civil War battle on Oct. 22nd and 23rd in 1864. As originally conceived, the project would have significantly disturbed the historic area. The Civil War Roundtable and associated groups advocated for a change. In the 1990s, significant effort, including the development of a large physical model of the area, was used to develop a solution consisting of a large concrete grade control structure that would protect the historic area while insuring that the technical needs of the project would be met. As channel construction neared the Byram's Ford area in the 2006 timeframe, that technical solution was revisited based on a changing vision for the upper end of the project. It resulted in a "greener", less intrusive, and lower maintenance solution consisting of low-head rock structures located at a number of places between 53rd Street and the Kansas City Zoo.

This project faced other challenges not related to the flow of the river. They involved the flow of funding to pay for such a huge undertaking. As the district faced challenges with improving the Blue River channel, it also faced the challenge of continued funding. The project cost $286 million - $248 million in federal money and $38 million from the City of Kansas City, Mo. The first construction contract was awarded in 1983. Maintaining consistent federal funding throughout the 32 year project presented a challenge. The City, in conjunction with organizations such as the Missouri and Associated River Coalition, the Kansas City Industrial Council, and MOARC enabled the completion of the project with their ongoing support during Congressional visits.

"Getting to the end of this project took great effort," said Holm. "It would not have been possible without the mindset of looking for solutions in collaboration with our partners. We have built a strong partnership with Kansas City and together we worked through complex and challenging issues, resolved disagreements and built consensus on how to continue moving forward."

One example of adjusting priorities and goals and moving forward is the change from a large grade control structure to a series of low-head rock-grade structures on the 53rd to 63rd street reach. This resolved technical challenges and long-term maintenance issues while maintaining hard-won flood damage reduction benefits through the Swope Park Soccer complex and the Kansas City Zoo reach. It also saved $40 million in project costs.

Finally, after more than three decades of work, the Blue River Corridor is changed. Some of the changes evolved over the course of the project. For example, the paved reach at the lower end was a direct engineering resolution to a series of complex challenges. The change to a greener channel and low-head rock structures at the upper end was also a response to engineering challenges, but incorporated the needs of the sponsor to reflect current values and approaches to watershed management. All the changes were consistent with and supported the original project as authorized by Congress. The completed project is a testimony to the work of multiple generations of Corps, City, and private sector staff.

John Holm contributed to this article