|By Anne Coburn-Griffis|
OTTAWA - With another storm in the forecast, one ripe with flood potential, local and government officials met on the morning of June 12 to discuss progress on the Blanchard River Flood mitigation project.
While studies have been done and plans are both on paper and electronic, the project appears to be stagnant. But, according to Village of Ottawa Assistant Municipal Director Jason Phillips, Blanchard River flood control measures are far from dead in the water.
"The Blanchard River is the highest priority in the Great Lakes Ohio Division," he said, referring to feedback from a June 8 meeting between representatives from US Army Corps of Engineers and officials from Ottawa and Findlay held in Findlay.
It will take federal funding to activate a complex system of Blanchard River flood control measures that are part of a tentative plan modeled by the Army Corps. According to Michael Pniewski, Western Lake Erie Basin Program Manager for the US Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District, the project is not an item in the 2013 federal budget.
"There are different colors of money. Language in the budget prohibits 2013 funds being used for projects not appropriated for in 2012. We are unable to use funds for a work plan in 2012. What the Buffalo district can do is look at other projects around the country and request that funds be moved to our project. Just like everything, there are no guarantees," Pniewski said.
Pniewski further pointed out that funding may be sought at the local level, but that this course is not without certain hazards.
"The Hancock County commissioners have the option to work to on the project on their own if they wish. The caveat is that they do that at their own risk. If they choose to forward those funds, those funds will count toward the cost share. There's just no guarantee that there will federal funds to count against it in the future," he said.
"So they can do other things?" asked Ottawa Village council member Deborah Bauer. "Yes,"responded Pniewski. "There is work to be done in the third phase that includes the optimization of the tentatively selected plan. Right now we know that there's a diversion channel, a levee, the knocking down of the I-9 bridge." In December 2012, he announced that changing the approach to the I-9 bridge could lower flood waters in downtown Ottawa from six to twelve inches, depending on flood levels. That redesign is part of the tentative plan.
"What we don't know is how long, how wide. It hasn't been fine tuned. We can also forward the field work, things like wetland studies, mussel surveys, cultural studies. That all can be performed. The work can keep moving, not the process. Whether that work can continue is at the option of the Hancock County commissioners. We currently have about $300,000 in hand. the Hancock County Commissioners owe us $150,000 additionally. We want to use what we have to stage things so that when we get those federal funds we can start work almost immediately."
"If commissioners choose to forward the funds, would that keep the schedule on track?" asked Putnam County Commissioner John Love.
"As a project manager I would rather have the work done and not have to scramble," responded Pniewski. "Some of the work is climate dependent. Wetland and mussel surveys typically have to be done by November. So we have a window to do those things now."
Bauer posed the question as to whether the federal budget delay has affected funding for the Blanchard River. Allison Witt, Legislative Director for Ohio Congressman Robert Latta, affirmed the statement.
"I have a chart that lists the funding for fiscal year 2012. It's all zeros because there were no funds appropriated." said Witt. "The most important thing that our legislators are doing is encouraging the Army Corps to reprogram funds to this project. The Army Corps has held up this project as a national model."
When asked what the earliest date to break ground on endorsed flood control measures, Pniewski responded, "I don't have a crystal ball. There are so many factors involved. It's not up to Buffalo. "
Village of Ottawa Administrator Jack Williams urged all parties to stay at the flood mitigation table, comparing his experiences with Blanchard River flood control, past and present. Cooperation, he assured all parties present, is absolutely necessary to the success of the project.
"I was here in 1971. This has gone a lot faster than then. We didn't have Findlay involved. We can't afford a split or even the perception of a split," he said.