On Nov. 2, voters in Salina will decide whether they want to spend $27 million to get their river back.
It’s an interesting issue for residents of other “river cities,” like Lawrence, to consider.
In the early 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a bypass channel to address flooding from the Smoky Hill River in downtown Salina. Like Lawrence, the city experienced devastating floods in 1951. Also like Lawrence, the new flood control system included a system of levees to protect the downtown. However, unlike the Kansas River that continues to flow through Lawrence, the Smoky Hill River’s flow through Salina has been all but eliminated by the bypass channel. The downtown channel of the Smoky Hill River has water only during heavy rains or when the flow is intentionally restored during the city’s Smoky Hill River Festival.
After the 1951 floods, Salina residents were eager to eliminate flooding in the area, but they didn’t realize that the bypass channel also would eliminate their city’s trademark river. They also didn’t realize how much of the city’s identity and history would be lost along with the river’s flow.
Now, voters in Salina are considering a plan to add a 0.25 percent sales tax to local purchases that would raise an estimated $27 million over the next 10 years to restore the Smoky Hill’s flow through the city. The goal is to return the river to its historical, recreational roots. Salina was founded where it was because of the river, which continued to be a popular boating and picnic spot through the years.
Salina City Manager Jason Gage put it this way: “This community grew up on the Smoky Hill River; it is our history and identity. Our identity has been gone since 1960.”
The Salina scenario should remind Lawrence residents of the importance of the Kansas River to our community and perhaps encourage us to take better advantage of the river’s development and recreational potential. The Kansas River is a big part of Lawrence’s history and identity, but we haven’t done as good a job as we might of capitalizing on that resource.
Developers and consultants who come to Lawrence often note what an attractive venue the Lawrence riverfront would be for additional retail and entertainment venues. A few steps have been taken in that direction, including the construction of Lawrence’s new City Hall, but some other ventures haven’t lived up to expectations.
The scenic and historical value of a river may not be fully appreciated until it is lost. The fact Salina residents may now be willing to spend millions of dollars to get their river back should serve as a reminder to Lawrence residents to appreciate what we have.