Dam project completed

Chad Frey
Bill Hedges made use of cool temperatures to venture out on Thursday morning and view something he wanted to see -- the new bladder dam on Sand Creek.

Bill Hedges made use of cool temperatures to venture out on Thursday morning and view something he wanted to see — the new bladder dam on Sand Creek.

’It’s a big one, I did not expect it to be that big,“ Hedges said.

He wanted to see what the the city has been waiting more than a year on — a replacement to a dam first installed more than 40 years ago that failed after flooding in 2019.

“All this dirt work — I didn’t know there would be that much dirt work. That takes a lot of time to do,” Hedges said.

Dondlinger Construction, the contractor hired by the city to replace the dam, had to cut a relief channel for the creek to go around the dam while it was being replaced. Thursday crews were finishing up filling that in and placing rock ripwrap in the area to prevent erosion.

The rubber bladder took months to be delivered, arriving in Newton in June. Sealants and parts followed in July. The project was approved in November 2019.

The dam failed in July 2019 after several high-water events. At 40 years old, with a life expectancy of 20 years, city parks staff noticed the rubber bladder on the adjustable inflatable dam appeared to have a problem on the north side. The air inflation equipment was struggling to keep up, which indicated a significant leak.

The cost of the project is estimated at $400,000, with the capital improvement budget allowing for $600,000. Final costs for the project will be known when it is complete.

Life expectancy of the bladder is 20 to 25 years.

Now all that is left, according to city officials, is for some rain both in Newton and north into McPherson and Marion counties to allow for the creek to fill back up.

“There is some flow in the creek in its natural state, but it will take forever to fill up if we don’t get some good rain,” said Erin McDaniel, director of public information for the city of Newton.

Hedges is hopeful the creek will be restocked with fish once the water returns. It is unclear when that might happen. Stocking of the creek is actually done by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, with the cooperation of Newton city parks staff.

McDaniel said that could happen when the weather cooled, and, of course, the creek is once again full.

Also happening once the creek is full will be the reduction of what some view as an eyesore and have been calling city hall about — weeds in the creek bed.

“We really could not get a mower down into the bed. A lot of that will be covered up when it reaches full depth and it will break down quickly when it gets covered with water,” McDaniel said. “We understand this has not been an ideal situation along the creek.”

During the year the creek was basically dry — causing native plantings to spread to the creek bed and the area having an overgrown appearance.

“The growth of the native plants has been more noticeable that usual.. We know in the 12 years since the bank restoration project that not everyone has enjoyed the native plantings,” McDaniel said. “That was part of the project, to put in plants with deeper root systems to prevent erosion of the creek beds.”

Those plantings were selected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After more than a decade of planning and a year of construction, a massive project to restore Sand Creek through the heart of Newton was completed in June of 2009.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had mandated improvements to the creek in 1997. The total cost of the project was $12 million. Of that, $5 million was federal funding secured through federal environmental restoration funds.

The goals of the project were bank restoration, hardwood planting areas and a wetlands area. Original plans called for work to be done between First Street and Main Street. Because of cost underruns by the corps, the city was able to expand the project south of First Street on the east bank.

The Corps of Engineers has been overseeing the management of Sand Creek.

“"It is ours to maintain, but they dictate the creeks management,” McDaniel said. “Our creek is not a flood control device. It really is for aesthetics and we are trying to improve.”

That’s not to say the city cannot do anything. In response to complaints, parks staff has been removing volunteer trees and pruning along Sand Creek. The creek banks are due for a controlled burn of native plantings and weeks next spring.

In the wake of a dam failure south of First Street, Sand Creek has seen an explosion of growth of native plantings placed on the creek banks 12 years ago. Many of those will be flooded out when the creek returns to normal depths in the days and weeks ahead.