WASHINGTON — It's been more than two decades since a mile-long ice jam on the Platte River swamped Interstate 80, flooded U.S. Highway 6 and nearly cut off Lincoln's entire water supply.
In 2000, Congress authorized levee improvements to guard against a repeat of the disaster, but that project still is not complete and the cost has risen to the point where it will remain stalled — barring further action from Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, local officials just hope they don't see another major ice jam that causes the same problems, said John Winkler, general manager for the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.
“Every winter, we cross our fingers that Lincoln and Omaha don't have disruptions in their water supply,” Winkler said. “ 'Cross your fingers' is only going to get you so far.”
Congress authorized the levee project, known as Western Sarpy-Clear Creek, in 2000 at a projected cost of $15.6 million. Federal funding for it has never been included in the president's budget, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but has been approved by Congress almost every year since 2001. Over time, the total cost, including local funding, has risen to about $43 million.
A technical formula in place since the mid-1980s referred to as “Section 902” restricts how much costs can rise on such projects. The Nebraska project is bumping right up against that ceiling, which means nothing further can be done.
Although the project is about three-fourths finished, Winkler said a levee system is only as strong as its weakest point, and that means the improvements so far will offer little peace of mind until the entire project is finished.
“There is no protection, or very little protection, until it's complete,” he said.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, worked with the top Republican and top Democrat on the panel to address the situation.
The result was a provision in the Senate-approved Water Resources Development Act that would allow projects to be completed even if they exceed their Section 902 limits — if they are more than 70 percent finished and the remaining federal cost is less than $5 million. That would allow the Western Sarpy-Clear Creek project, as well as other projects meeting those requirements, to move forward.
In a statement, Fischer described the stalled levee improvements as a “critical flood control project” for Nebraska.
“The Western Sarpy-Clear Creek area has a significant, long-term flooding problem and levee improvements are needed to provide flood control to protect the Interstate and Highway 6, the Nebraska Army National Guard buildings and training areas, water wells that supply drinking water to 50 percent of Nebraska's population — including the cities of Lincoln and Omaha — and numerous residential buildings,” Fischer said.
One problem, however, is that the House recently passed its own version without matching language.
Fischer hopes the conference committee ironing out differences between the two will use the Senate language. So does Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb.
Winkler shares their hope.
“We're a little frustrated with the difference in the two versions, but hopefully they can work it out in conference,” Winkler said. “This project has dragged on for over a decade.”
He said the 1993 experience shows he isn't just crying wolf about the impact of a flood. The last time around, he said, the City of Lincoln was so low on water that it would have been hard-pressed to put out a major fire.
“This has happened before,” he said.