Harry Neufeldt, like any long-lived farmer, is worried about his neighbors and worried about his land.
Neufeldt said he has become concerned about increasing problems with flooding near his home and over 14th Avenue near the corner of Buckskin Road in McPherson County.
Late at night about three years ago, he said he rescued two women, who were in their 80s, from a vehicle when they drove off the edge of the road near his home because there was floodwater over the road.
Neufeldt’s home is very near a flood plain to the northwest. Water has never been in Neufeldt’s home, but his insurance company has told him if water does enter his home, his insurance will be canceled.
Neufeldt blames a culvert about a quarter mile from his home, which he says is much too small to handle the amount of water that is being drained into it. He is upset with the county who he said is refusing to replace the culvert to alleviate the flooding. He said the flooding is dangerous for drivers and will ultimately lead to destruction on his property.
Dangers of road flooding
Fourteenth Avenue, the road on which Neufeldt lives, is an old state highway. Today it is a county road that carries about 1,800 cars per day, Tom Kramer, McPherson County Director of Public Works, said.
Kramer admitted when the area receives heavy rains or the areas upstream of 14th Avenue receive heavy rains, four to five sections of the road will flood. He said he has seen as much as three to four inches of water over the road between McPherson and the south county line.
“We may have water over the road for three or four hours, and then it is business as usual,” Kramer said.
These areas are marked by permanent flood warning signs. When residents or sheriff’s deputies report flooding on these sections of the road, crews put up warning signs and barricades in attempts to keep people from driving into dangerously high water. Unfortunately, Kramer said the barriers are not always effective.
“Some people will risk their lives instead of driving around high water,” Kramer said.
He said some barricades have been pulled as a “prank,” further putting people’s lives in danger.
“The public has to be responsible when they get behind the wheel,” Kramer said. “We do what we can to keep them safe.”
Undersheriff Jim Johnston said 14th Avenue is one of the first places to which deputies are called when rains are severe. However, he said deputies rarely are called to flooding situations and have not responded to a flood-related emergency in the county any time in the recent past.
Page 2 of 3 - Johnston said driving into high water is terribly dangerous and urged drivers to go around flooded roadways.
“Don’t go through it,” he said. “Just a little bit of water can make you hydroplane and lose control.”
In terms of getting protection for his property, Neufeldt said he has hit only roadblocks.
He said at one point, he contacted Baron Shively at the Soil Conservation Office. Neufeldt said Shively told him the culvert was too small. However, during a subsequent visit to the office, a technician said he could not tell Neufeldt how large the culvert was supposed to be because important paperwork had been lost.
Attempts to resolve the problem with Kramer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas State Board of Agriculture and the state water office also have not yielded results, Neufeldt said.
To protect Neufeldt’s property, officials suggested he build a dike around his 60 acres, but Neufeldt balked at the $100,000 cost.
Fixing the flooding on Neufeldt’s property or the other sections of 14th Avenue is not as easy as just replacing a culvert, Kramer said.
The landscape and the drainage of the McPherson County has significantly changed since the 14th Avenue was built in the 1920s.
McPherson County is fairly flat. That makes dealing with drainage difficult. In order to allow land in the southern part of the county to be farmed, a manmade creek was built to handle drainage. Over time, natural drainage channels were filled to allow crops to be planted.
This has disrupted much of the natural flow of water.
Kramer displayed an aerial photo of the farmland surrounding Neufeldt’s home. You can still see the remainder of what once was creeks on both Neufeldt’s land and his neighbor to the west.
Kramer also said there was once a pond northeast of the Neufeldt home that would have slowed the flow of water across the farmland.
Neufeldt claims 14th Avenue has been raised two feet since its construction, causing it to act like a dam. Kramer said engineering plans from when the road was built indicate the elevation of the road has been raised two to three inches. If the road was acting like a dam, the water would be higher on one side than the other, and Kramer said this is not the case.
Drainage problems exist both upstream and downstream of the Neufeldt property, creating a temporary lake at the intersection during heavy rains.
Because the flood water is about the same depth on both sides of the culvert, enlarging the culvert will not make a difference, Kramer said.
Page 3 of 3 - Battle for right of way
The county has no control over the land outside of its narrow strip of right of way. Kramer said he tried to get Neufeldt to sell the county more right of way so the shoulder could be widened, but he refused. Kramer said this could have helped relieve some of the flooding near Neufeldt’s home.
Further, the county is in dispute with Neufeldt over another section of road near Inman. There are two deep ditches along a section of the road. The situation is dangerous because water is continually washing dirt from underneath the road, Kramer said. The county has put up guardrails along this section in order to protect drivers from driving off into the ditches. Kramer said he had almost received approval to rebuild the drainage on this section of road, but Neufeldt was resistant to giving up the right of way needed to do so.
“Someday the road is going to cave in,” Kramer said, “and that is going to be a very sad day for someone. I hope it is not Harry.”
A matter of money
The county can’t force farmers to contour their land differently. Other solutions would be cost prohibitive, Kramer said.
In order to keep water from flowing over 14th Avenue, the county would have to replace the road and all its drainage structures from McPherson to the Harvey County line. This would cost millions of dollars and take years to complete, Kramer said.
State highways that carry interstate travelers are built to higher standards than county roads that carry primarily local traffic.
The difference — a county engineer may plan for a $15,000 to $20,000 box culvert, but a state highway engineer would plan for an $800,000 bridge. Kramer said high costs are hard to sell to taxpayers, especially those who may live in the northern portion of the county and not have a personal stake in the project.
Kramer said the county has set priorities based on engineering information. He said the culvert at Neufeldt’s property is in good shape, and no changes are planned for that drainage structure.
“We have other flooding issues to deal with,” he said. “We are still replacing wooden boxes that are rated for three to four tons that have 30-ton semis driving over them.”
Kramer stood strong on his position.
“I wish I could wave a magic wand and give Mr. Neufeldt a new culvert,” he said, “but I am afraid we would be right back where we started. We would still need to rebuild the whole road.”