Residents of Newton and Sedgwick have the Sand Creek Watershed to thank for keeping water out of their homes as parts of Harvey County has received as much as 15 inches of rain in the past month.
The Sand Creek Watershed is made up of 10 dam sites built between 1976 and 2000.
"There are nine north of town and one between Newton and Sedgwick," explained SCWD Board President Tom Cowan.
The Sand Creek Watershed drains 64,134 acres — nearly 55,000 acres in Harvey County and the rest within the borders of Marion County.
"They're pretty impressive structures," said SCWD Board Vice President Emil Schmidt. "...It just prevents this flood of water from hitting Newton all at once."
"(Each site) dumps into a spilling basin with big rocks around it so it doesn't erode," said SCWD Secretary John Unruh. "It expends a lot of energy right there and then it flows on out."
Kansas Department of Agriculture Watershed Program Manager Hakim Saadi said the total detention storage capacity of the Sand Creek Watershed sites is approximately 2.2 billion gallons of water.
"Watersheds are the silent protectors," Saadi said.
According to a recent article written by State Association of Kansas Watersheds Executive Director Herbert Graves, there are 75 existing watershed districts in Kansas.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service estimated that the dams provided $7 million of flood reduction benefits from the rains that fell between May 6 and May 8 and $18.3 million of flood reduction benefits for the May 20 and May 21 rains.
"Add to this the flood reduction benefits from 500-plus state Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Conservation-funded dams and you can see how Kansas benefits from the watershed district programs," Graves said.
In the Sand Creek Watershed District, the amount of flood reduction benefits for the past month was estimated at $263,000.
"Every community in Kansas with watershed districts benefit from their dams not only from recent rain events, but from every rain event since the dams were constructed," Graves said.
The Sand Creek Watershed District was formed on April 26, 1965, just a few weeks before a record flood hit Newton.
John Torline remembers the pool of water that began at the railroad crossing on Main Street between Newton and North Newton and ended at the intersection of Ninth and Main streets. His home was located on the east side of the 1300 block of North Main Street.
"Our house was a little higher than the rest, so our basement was full but there was nothing on the first floor," Torline recalled. "This contrasted with the KuKu Burger Bar — now Tongish Auto Mart. After the water receded, they painted a line around the perimeter of the building depicting the depth of the water and it was 6 feet above the parking lot."
Torline also remembers a regular flotilla of boats going up and down Main Street in front of his house and his sister, who worked at Hogan's downtown, being brought home on one of those boats.
"I have memories of the Mennonite Disaster Service pumping out our basement and hauling everything upstairs and outside. All they would take in return was coffee and sandwiches," Torline said. "This left me with a lasting impression that remains with me today."
The number of those who do remember the flood of 1965 are dwindling, and some question why there is a line on their property tax statement for the watershed district.
Schmidt said that money is used for the upkeep of the dams along the watershed — a daunting task after drains are clogged with tree limbs and other muck left by rushing water.
"There is still a lot of maintenance that happens; we'll have to come in here and clean up all the residue and debris," Schmidt said.
"When the water goes down, we've gone down with a mini excavator and raked all of that off," Unruh said. "The problem is that trash, if you just rake it off, it goes right back on it with the next rain."
Tree limbs must be burned to prevent them being carried into the spillway again with the next round of rains.
Each dam site must also have its fences maintained and its sides mowed as needed. Members of the SCWD board watch out for burrowing animals that can damage the sides of the dam and make sure no trees grow on them.
"Trees can compromise the dam's integrity," Unruh explained.
When not filled with water, 78 percent of the land within the watershed is used to grow crops, 13 percent is grassland and the other nine percent is made up of farmsteads, roads and urban areas. It also provides a habitat for various wildlife such as deer, turkeys and herons.
SCWD's Site 1 is the biggest dam structure in place, measuring over a mile in length and being able to back up a mile of water when full.
"It's pretty cool, what they've done and the amount of work they put into it," Unruh said. "...A lot of engineering goes into these things before any dirt gets moved."
Even with all the rain over the past weeks, SCWD Site 1 still had plenty of room to spare.
"This isn't the fullest it's ever been, but there's a lot of water out here," Schmidt said. "Better here than in Newton."
"It serves its purpose in holding all that water back and then drains itself out slowly," Cowan said. "...People who have looked at our structures have always commented on how nice they are. I'm very proud of those when I look at them, too."