NTF Issue Paper: Papiomrnrd9.doc. 5-07.

 

NEBRASKA TAXPAYERS FOR FREEDOM ISSUE PAPER:

PAPIO-MISSOURI NRD SPENDING: STOP THE DAMS.

 

BACKGROUND.  For several years, there has occurred an accelerating heated controversy regarding the estimated $400 million proposal by several Papio-Missouri NRD board members and administrators to construct 31 dams and lakes and accompanying recreation areas within the NRD jurisdiction.  Estimates often range lower than actual costs.  Proponents tout these dam sites as the best means to control erosion and runoff and handle critical peak flow flood protection within the Papio Basin.  However, much evidence supports the alternative suggestion that spending millions on these sites is only a means to offer the NRD authority more work to do with accompanying staff and budget hikes and offer developers a cheaper means to develop and profit from lakeside properties.  The NRD objective is to maintain flood control conditions at current safe levels, though the watershed probably will become entirely urbanized in 40 years, making this objective obsolete.  The dam-building plan answered federal EPA mandates that communities reduce urban water runoff and pollution, which contains chemicals and pesticides that enter waterways, unfunded mandates for which local taxpayers must pay.  Fed regulatory requirements for stormwater management to accommodate new residential/commercial development will impose huge financial demands for capital, operation, and maintenance costs.  However, no EPA requirement mandates dam building.   No mention of creating recreational areas or swank lakeside residential communities. 

 

SCARE TACTICS.  Dam proponents, specifically touting 2 large dams costing $108 million and accompanying lakes in southern Washington County, attempt to frighten downstream residents by alluding to horrible consequences to hundreds of homes and businesses during a 100-year flood.  Such flood has an infinitesimal chance of occurring, needlessly sacrificing 70 homes and 4,800 acres to speculative condemnation.  Not publicized is the fact that these 2 dams would not protect all exposed property along the waterway, that flooding might cause $1.4 million damage yearly.  Many of the structures already built in the floodplain will remain at risk, but taxpayers should not compensate these property owner risks.  At the July 12, 2007 NRD board meeting, an HDR representative delivered a comprehensive study analysis presentation about concerns of flooding in Douglas County along the Big Papillion Creek.  The objective was to provide key data to board members, so that they could decide if building Dams 1 & 3c, and perhaps others, was a preferred flood protection strategy.  The study based on a worst case scenario of a 100-yr. flood, something unlikely to ever occur, a 1% chance of happening in any year.  There was no analysis of precisely where heavy rainfall would occur along the watershed to create water flow comparisons.  Yet, the scenario described by the study authors and board supporters appeared only to muster support for an unpopular NRD proposal to build not only 2 but 29 more dams in the metro area.  Most vocal in their support were private developers who wish to build or expand in the extended flood plain, and they intend to lobby the NRD board to fund the dams.  However, the 100-yr. floodplain supposedly grew by 500 acres because of land use changes , an argument for restricting building in the floodplain.  Better and less costly alternatives include floodplain buyouts and stricter zoning regulations, levee and channel modifications, enhanced conservation measures, and/or multiple dry dam detention structures.  Building wet dams would mean a 2.5%-2.7% reduction in Washington Co. property tax revenues.  The Bennington School District would lose 5.4% property tax revenue, the Arlington School District a 3.7% loss. Wet dams would confiscate 5,865 acres, costing $18.4 million, plus $29 million for facility costs, plus $.3 million for annual upkeep costs.  Douglas and Washington Counties would see 70 homes destroyed, compared to 10 structures taken for dry dam sites.  Total cost: $108.2 million.  Dry dams are a more economical alternative and offer better water quality, one of the main objectives of the NRD.  The total dry dam costs at Site 1 & Site 3c would reach only $84.9 million.  Multiple dry dam detentions would cost $6.4 million annually, the cheapest alternative, compared to $7.7 million for wet dams, with annual equivalent flood damage reduction totaling $9.4 million, the 2nd best alternative at saving property next to levees and channel modifications.  All roads would remain open in the dry dam scenario.  Two wet dams would confiscate 5,865 acres; dry dams would require only 3,820 acres. 

 

SWEET DEAL.  This agreement implies that developers would pay only 1/3 of costs, 2/3rds from NRD property taxpayers to construct the dam sites.  The NRD refuses to disclose the names of development companies interested in partnering.  It would be interesting to know which of these corporations contribute to NRD board member re-election campaigns.  Companies would pay only low-density residential development $500 lot fees and larger high-density fees for apartments and commercial buildings.  Real estate developers will not absorb the additional fees in areas they develop; they will pass along costs to homebuilders and homebuyers.  NRDs would pay the total cost of obtaining land rights, a much more expensive endeavor when buying from land speculators.  Real estate companies selling lakefront and nearby residential and commercial properties will reap the highest profit ratios.  New homeowners would see higher home costs and valuations/taxes accordingly.  NRD policy does not specifically state how much publicly-used land would surround the lakes.  The NRD would commit to building dams to stem storm water runoff from urban sprawl, yet its plan does not force developers to construct wetlands or silt impoundments that reduce runoff.  Without the unneeded dams, developers would have the bulk of responsibility to reduce runoff.  With the dams, companies could develop more of their properties, especially around the lakes, boosting profits considerably.  Developers defend the NRD decision to not inform local landowners, arguing that discussion with them would instill fear that landowners could not develop their land that one day would become submerged.  However, the acting NRD director admitted that his agency never would require set asides of specific acreages for the dams. 

 

TAXERS RUSES.  The NRD will disseminate what it terms educational materials to inform the public about its proposal.  In reality, these materials, some distributed in public schools, are only pro-dam propaganda.  The board refuses to listen to vociferous opposition testimony both from landowners whose property it would confiscate and from taxpaying citizens who offer superior alternative suggestions.  In 2001 and revised in 2004, the NRD established an interlocal agreement with several area local governments to find ways to meet federal mandates.  After it became apparent that the NRD was using this agreement to promote its plan to construct a series of dams, both Washington County and the town of Kennard withdrew from the agreement that had required financial contributions from each member.  This interlocal agreement expires in 2009.  The district continues to plan on implementing these dam sites provided the board supports and funds them.  The NRD intends to fund its giant plan by raising local property taxes, instituting stormwater utility fees, and by soliciting increasingly scarce state and federal funds.  It budgeted $2.94 million to begin purchasing land in NW Douglas County to build 3 dams.  The NRD could condemn through eminent domain private property, productive acreages and farmland that now pay property taxes.  Of course, siting residential properties on these areas would increase property tax revenue, some of it filling NRD coffers.  As a result of the nefarious New London v. Kelo U.S. Supreme Court decision, many states, including Nebraska, passed remedial legislation.  LB 924 prohibits a condemner from taking property through use of eminent domain for economic development purposes or for increased tax revenue, tax base, or general economic enhancement.  It narrows qualifications that developers must meet for eminent domain condemnation.  Therefore, to avoid probable lawsuits over eminent domain confiscation, the NRD would allow developers to first purchase desired ground and then buy it from them, though at higher cost.  The NRD tries to scare support from taxpaying citizens by referring to the specter of a 100-yr. flood, yet downpours of such magnitude would almost never pass over the entire watershed area and thus not require this series of dams to control flood waters.  These large dams silt up quickly, subsequently holding less water and providing less recreational activity.  Taxpayers pay for expensive dredging and sediment removal, e.g. Lake Cunningham.  The NRD board voted to budget 12% more in 2006, $8 million, for planning, land buys, and dam construction in this project.  The FY 2007 budget provides $4.1 million to build 5 dams, but total cost would reach $65 million.  2 dams would site near Bennington, although the town mayor declared that his community never had requested them!  Neglected for mention was the future cost to taxpayers to maintain and operate the dam sites, major costs not yet figured by the agency.  However, developers would pay none of these costs.  The NRD at taxpayer expense bought a full-page ad in the Omaha World-Herald to publicize its grand scheme.  It alluded to the original Corps of Engineers plan from the late 1960s, a plan jettisoned quickly as impractical and greatly unpopular.  The July, 2007 HDR study notes that, if federal funds, private contributions, and grants cannot fund this project, taxes, bonds, and fees must fund it. 

 

THE REAL VICTIMS.  The NRD already has raised property taxes for planned dams, with proposed spending of $100 million for only the dams in Washington County.  The NRD board disingenuously contends that it will build all the dams, only if it has the revenue, knowing that it can raise property taxes each year.  After the City of Omaha annexes outlying areas, city taxpayers will absorb the property tax load borne by residents in SIDs heretofore paying to maintain dam site areas.  Taxpayers would subsidize private developers who plan to build $750,000 homes and plush office complexes bordering the lakes, covering a majority of the developed area.  Subdivision homeowners would enjoy instant access to lakes and recreation areas, having to cross only slivers of public land.  Because this grandiose scheme exceeds the NRD financial abilities, the NRD board continues to ask the Natural Resources Comm. in the state legislature for authority to issue general obligation bonds, the interest and principal paid by additional local property taxes and not subject to current levy limitations specified in state law.  This bonding authority would provide the monies needed to build all the desired dam sites in the district.  Monies raised would pay not only for flood and water runoff control but also for recreational uses, the latter originally not a main mission for the NRD.  The NRD conducted no study to determine if projected population growth required so much recreation area.  In addition, the NRD conducted no study to determine the cost-benefit of these development-based lakes.  The board (2006) voted to spend $50,000 to lobby the Unicameral for bonding permission.  That NRD budget relies on obtaining $5 million additional state funds annually for dams (not including the potential bond revenue), beginning in FY 2009-2010, but, if not appropriated, property owners will pay the tab.  The NRD wants statutory authority to condemn 9,000 acres and 129 homes and close roads in dam site areas, overriding the existing authority of city and county, thus destroying infrastructure paid for and maintained by taxpayers. The NRD has not kept informed individual landowners targeted adversely by proposed dams, supposedly because of a need for a further technical analysis and available options.  A lame excuse, as the board has refused to fully fund a comprehensive hydrological study.  The NRD board never asked for or allowed public involvement regarding dam site priority.  Board member Rick Patterson, complained that the agency has made scarce effort to answer his and his constituent concerns.  Board member Rich Tesar denounced dilution of policy language that would have required more developer funding and blamed the acting general manager for surrendering to developer pressure.  Committee Chairman John Conley, as previously, prohibited other board members from discussing the draft agreement.  His obvious reason was to muzzle initiatives to force builders to construct impoundments in their developments, which would use land on which developers otherwise could build and sell houses.  However, it did consult developers and local bureaucrats.  Targeted landowners fear to improve their properties and cannot sell to prospective buyers apprehensive about future condemnation.  The board also understands that it probably will purchase needed properties from private developers at more handsome fair market value sums, thus no need to inform targeted landowners.  The board in 2-06 established a steering committee to examine flood control options in the watershed north of Omaha but closed its meetings to the public and watershed residents.  One proposed lake would inundate the entire village of Washington and portions of Kennard.  Washington County refuses to join the joint area partnership, because so much of its land and infrastructure would become flooded under this plan.  NRD working groups that recommend policies to the board include developers and engineers, both of who would benefit from dam construction, but include no landowners.  The board claims that larger dams are more efficient in controlling floodwaters and runoff and cost less to maintain than private impoundments, though private reservoirs and ponds have controlled erosion and flooding for decades; more of them can work likewise at no cost to taxpayers. The NRD staff, as of this date, has not provided examples of other similar cities using dams to control stormwater runoff, even when asked for such information by NRD member Tesar.

 

THE FIX IS IN.  Dam proponent board members chose as their new general manager someone who developer interests recommended for the position.  These interests have benefited in the past and will benefit in the future from dam site development.  His background is in economic development, not in natural resources.  John Winkler also has a background in public-private partnerships that form the basis for previous and future NRD dam site developments.  The original reasoning for natural resource districts was to prevent flooding and erosion and to maintain wetland and water quality.  Now, the Papio-Missouri NRD is mostly concerned with development of its watershed. 

 

NTF ALTERNATIVES.  Admittedly, new development will increase stormwater runoff, unless we implement runoff control methods.  The NRD board should work with other governmental subdivisions to pass zoning laws that discourage companies from developing floodplain areas, thus curtailing runoff and potential flooding problems. Allowing significant encroachment on the floodplain will endanger existing levees already compromised and built to offer flood protection only under a current flood protection scenario.   Make those who create excess water runoff pay the cost and implement means to control it, not all area taxpayers.  Developers can use contouring and natural barriers to control runoff/erosion.  Farmers and other large landowners in the Papio Basin have and can continue to increase implementation of terraces, sediment structures, and small retention impoundments to control runoff and eroding sediment.  Such upstream water storage would negate the need for dams.  Establish a series of wetlands to trap pollution and promote filtration of runoff.  Encourage homeowners to use barrels to catch roof runoff and businesses to use catch basins in large parking lots and commercial strips to control runoff. 

 

CONCLUSION.  Obvious is that the NRD cares more about development and recreational fun than about its main purposes of flood control and water quality.  The NRD board has no reason to raise taxes and reserve huge funds, unless it definitely intends to build the dams.  Its plan commits taxpayers to more than required by federal mandate.  There exists no popular mandate for the NRD to proceed.  No study definitively has confirmed the dams as the best alternative or that their benefits would justify costs, and the NRD board refuses to call for one.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under federal law, incidentally, cannot spend funds on dams without conducting a cost-benefit study.  The NRD board threatens to conduct further discussion of this proposal in closed session, depriving the public of the right to speak and hear board member comments.

 

NRD BOARD VOTES 2006:

Committee vote to implement the policy to construct 29 dams to meet storm water policies. YES: John Conley, Kolowsky, Thompson.  NO: Jansen, Tesar.

Board vote to implement the policy to construct 29 dams to meet storm water policies.  YES:  Fred Conley, John Conley, Fowler, Jansen, Kolowski, Schwope, Thompson.  NO: Connealy, Lanphier, Tesar. 

A board majority voted to institute one of the most expensive storm water retention plans in the nation.  The board in 2005 raised the local property tax to fund Omaha-area dams and in FY 2006 spent about 50% of its property tax revenue on dam construction here.  Property taxes will rise steeply to fund 29 dams that will control only 17% of watershed runoff!

 

TAKE ACTION NOW. 

 

Research, analysis, and documentation for this issue paper done by Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom.  This material copyrighted by Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, with express prior permission granted for its use by Citizens for Local Control, Cherry County Taxpayers, and Dawes County Taxpayers.  5-07.  C