Historic photos of Salina, Kansas, show a city different from the one many would recognize today. Before the 1960s, the Smoky Hill River flowed through the town, providing a place for the city’s residents and visitors to gather, fish, and enjoy themselves. The river also powered several grain mills, making it a key economic driver for the community. However, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed a flood control levee, it restricted water flow and strangled the river. The once-flowing river soon filled with sediment and debris, becoming an eyesore for the town.

Friends of the River, a local grassroots non-profit organization, began organizing in 2007 to inspire local interest in revitalizing the river corridor. Building on their work, the City of Salina and HDR, Inc., are working to restore the unsightly riverbed and turn it back into a focus of recreation and business development.

Tyler Young of Municipal Water Leader recently had the opportunity to speak with Martha Tasker, the utilities director for Salina and a project manager for the Smoky Hill River Renewal Project, and Eric Dove, a senior resources engineer at HDR, about the city’s efforts to restore the river and the importance of community engagement and long-term planning in developing a project that will benefit the residents and businesses of Salina.

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Tyler Young: Could you each tell our readers about your backgrounds and how you became involved with this project?

Martha Tasker: I have been involved with water and wastewater treatment facilities for nearly 40 years. The city’s water supply is from the Smoky Hill River, so I have done a lot of research on its flows and conditions and on the nearby lake to figure out how it forms our water supply. My background in water supply brought me to the river renewal project.

Salina has a population of about 50,000 people, so we often wear many hats in the community. I often joke that if the job description has the word water in it, it seemsto fit in my category. In total, I have been with the City for about 14 years. Prior to that, I worked for an engineering firm here in Salina.

I was known by some of the people in the Friends of the River grassroots organization that started the river renewal project many decades ago. In fact, the engineering firm I worked for previously did some of the original work. Later, the grassroots group did a lot of research and started getting the project going. Over the course of time, I met with them several times, and the river renewal project became a fit for me to follow through with.

Eric Dove: I have about 25 years of experience in water resources and obtained my bachelor of science and master’s degrees in civil engineering from the University of Nebraska– Lincoln. My background is focused on open-channel surface water management. I have worked on dams, channels, water quality, and many other types of projects. Some of them were heavily focused on recreational aspects, and others focused on fishing and net value for the community. This project pulls in a lot of those different aspects.

I serve on the board of directors for a nonprofit, the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, which is charged with protecting drinking water supplies for Springfield and Greene County, Missouri. Through my nonprofit work, I am also working on a variety of open channel and water quality fundraisers. That ties in well with the Smoky Hill River Renewal Project.

Tyler Young: Could you tell us about the Smoky Hill River Renewal Project and the goals it hopes to meet?

Martha Tasker: The Smoky Hill River had been an active piece of our community since the 1800s. It was a meeting and gathering place. Many of our citizens have fond memories of the river. However, in the 1960s, a flood control levee was built, which limited the flow that came through the city. While it protected the city from flooding, the water did not flow through the community like it once had. What used to be a beautiful amenity is now an eyesore filled with sediment, trash, and debris. The community’s goal is to have that river flowing again as an active asset to the city.

Friends of the River hired a consulting firm out of Colorado to research the community’s interest in a potential river renewal. They spent about $400,000 of their own money to determine that there was a desire within our community for the river to be rejuvenated. At that point, it was up to the City Commission to develop a master plan to bring that vision to fruition.

In May 2016, the voters approved a sales tax for improvements within our community, one being the river renewal project. Once that was passed, we moved forward with a request for proposals. We interviewed several different consulting firms and selected HDR for the project.

Tyler Young: How has HDR made this project a success?

Eric Dove: Each of us on the team has worked on a variety of river renewal projects. Probably the most notable is the one we are working on down in San Antonio, Texas, on the Museum and San Pedro Creek reaches. Working on many projects of this nature, our team has identified their typical tripping points and stumbling blocks. We knew that our team for this project needed to be a diverse working group comprising experts in the fields of water supply, architecture, and public involvement.

One of the things we have to be careful about is public outreach. The public always has to be invested in the outcome. We assembled a 25-person steering committee and reached out to the community in three public meetings. Through the meetings, we determined the City’s priorities for the project and, at the end of the day, developed a thorough project that met the City’s needs. Through the process, 4,500 people downloaded and viewed the public presentation—if you do the math, that is nearly 10 percent of the community. That is outstanding community engagement. We received wonderful advice and direction from the community. It was critical to have a highly qualified team that covered every facet of the project and was willing to work with the community to find that sweet spot.

Martha Tasker: To add to that, when HDR gave its presentation, it emphasized the company’s team, accomplishments, and strong relationship with the Army Corps. This is one of those projects where the Section 1135 Ecosystem Restoration Program can come into play—the Army Corps will help restore ecosystems that were harmed by projects it has carried out in the past. The lack of flow in the channel prevented the river from being a live ecosystem. As a result, the Army Corps has been a part of our project team and has helped us secure part of the funding. That longstanding relationship with the Corps was a strength that HDR brought to the table.

When we first started the project, Eric recommended having a 10–12 person steering committee, but we ended up with about 25 people who really wanted to be a part of it. HDR laid out the program and discussed it with the community in an understandable fashion. Our solution is not one for San Antonio or Oklahoma. It is fine-tuned for Salina and its citizens.

Tyler Young: What are some of the biggest challenges you have had to face while working on this project?

Martha Tasker: Our channel is 6.8 miles long, and there are a lot of different features that presented challenges during the project-planning phase. There is an old Western Star Mill dam in the middle of that span that could be a drowning hazard because it has a 10–11 foot drop. Good engineers and architects and common sense worked us through that.

I think convincing people that the river could be restored and selling the image of a Salina with a flowing river were among the hardest challenges. The river channels have been just sitting there with no flushing flow to clean the sediment. There are 8–10 feet of sediment in some locations. We even had to move the city’s water intake because the water level no longer reached the old intake, which was built in the late 1800s.

Eric Dove: The other challenge was the budget. The original 2010 master plan identified anywhere from $75 million to $150 million worth of improvements. The City only has a small portion of that set aside. The question quickly became what we should build in the first phase. We couldn’t build everything, so we had to determine the community’s priorities. Trying to work through that has been important for the success of the project. Through this process, we have identified that first and foremost, we have to get the water flowing, but community access is at the top of the list as well. The community talked about using kayaks instead of water taxis, so everything that we are designing will allow for kayak accessibility down the road. That really refocused our design elements and eliminated some of the more expensive features. We were able to get a lot more miles into our first phase budget.

Martha Tasker: When we started this project, we really wanted to develop an overall plan for the whole channel and not just tiny segments. We felt that if we did not start to plan for the entire channel, we could easily box ourselves into being unable to do what we wanted in the future. I think we would be struggling greatly if we hadn’t done this, especially looking at what we have done with the Western Star Mill dam. I have always been a big supporter of developing a good plan up front. In every project I’ve worked on, it has been money well spent. We would not be getting the same project we are getting today if we hadn’t taken time to plan.

Eric Dove: Martha’s approach shows a lot of vision and foresight. So many communities with limited budgets will just go to work on a tiny segment. We know we cannot build it all, but because everything is connected hydraulically, we needed to work through the entire channel corridor. It started to get us thinking about all of the interesting channel features. If we had gone segment by segment, we would have boxed ourselves in and possibly implemented something the community would not have been happy with.

Tyler Young: What words of wisdom do you have for others interested in pursuing a project like this?

Martha Tasker: Public involvement is key. So is not getting in a hurry. Be sure to get public support, thoughtfully analyzing every facet of the project, and make sure to work with a firm that has experience in producing the kind of project you want to have.

Eric Dove: Once you open up to public comment, you have to actively respond. Rather than just giving the public information, you need to engage with the public by listening and trying to incorporate their needs into the project. It’s vital to build flexibility into the process so that you can incorporate their input.

Tyler Young: Has Salina seen any additional benefits from this project?

Eric Dove: Certainly. The City has already seen an increase in economic redevelopment potential. In one project I worked on in Lincoln, Nebraska, there was an increase of three dollars of private development for every one dollar of public money used for infrastructure development. In San Antonio, the return is estimated to be even higher. This project will not only create a public recreation area—it also has the potential to boost economic redevelopment. Many of the properties that back onto the channel now are blighted, but once we restore the flow it will drive reinvestment into this area. Salina has a rich river history: Restoring the river and those economic drivers will help restore that overall level of vitality.

Martha Tasker: We have a new entertainment center, The Alley; a car museum; and a lot of things being built downtown near the channel in coalition with the river renewal project. This project is really creating a pull for a lot of other types of development. We really want Salina to be a place people cannot wait to tell others about once they visit. We want people to tell their friends and family about our river and our downtown.

Martha Tasker is the director of utilities for the City of Salina in Kansas. She can be reached at Martha.Tasker@salina.org or (785) 309-5725.

Eric Dove is the senior water resources project manager for HDR. He can be reached at eric.dove@hdrinc.com or (417) 351-6502.