The Army Corps of Engineers has heard all the public feedback it cares to on environmental issues related to a major Midtown flood control project.
As the 145-day comment period for the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Indianapolis White River (North) Flood Damage Reduction Project neared its Oct. 31 closing date, Indianapolis city officials sent a letter to the Corps requesting an extension for the comment period during which people could respond to the Corps evaluation of several different routes or alignments along which to complete the $49 million levee system that stretches from Broad Ripple to Butler Tarkington.
Matt Schueler, project manager for Indianapolis White River (North) Flood Damage Reduction Project, explained the Corps position in a Tuesday telephone call with NUVO.
"We didn't see a need to further extend it," Schueler said. "Again, it had been open for 145 days. This is the final environmental impact statement. There had been a draft previous, where we'd addressed a lot of the comments. We didn't feel we'd receive anything new. And, for that reason, the comment period was closed on the 31st of October."
Still, the decision does not mean that the Corps will begin construction on its preferred alternative, the one that —for financial reasons — excludes Rocky Ripple.
The move essentially just sets the table for further discussion between the city, which is committed to covering 25 percent of the project's costs, and officials with the Corps' Louisville District, which is overseeing the project.
Wrapping up the public input process is important so that the Corps can make clear its position and the city can respond with its position, so "we see where we are and go from here," district public affairs specialist Carol Labashosky said.
The Corps main objective, she added, is to complete the project so that it actually provides the 100-year flood protection that it is supposed to.
At this point, no one can say for sure how the negotiations will go. The Corps still has some additional environmental information to gather for the city, Schueler said, so the details of final details of the project are somewhat in flux.
"If they come back and don't want to proceed with either of the two alternatives, it's kind of hard to speculate what their answer is with all the info they're receiving," Schueler said. "If it comes to a point where the city is going to reject the plan, I guess the project would probably be on hold at that point."
On hold and unfinished, Labashosky reiterated.
"Again, (the city is) a sponsor providing funding, and they are our partner," Schueler said. "We'll see where that leads."
When the city submitted its request for an extension, Lesley Gordon, who handles media relations for the city's Department of Public Works emailed an update: "Over the past few months, the Indianapolis Department of Public Works, in conjunction with Citizens Energy Group, has initiated an analysis of the "canal west bank" option. Based on preliminary findings, DPW has asked the Corps of Engineers to further study this option as a possible federal alternative for the flood damage reduction project."
Brad Barcom, president of the Rocky Ripple Town Board, is watching with interest.
As to the west-side canal alignment, the so-called Baranick Alignment, Barcom said in a recent email, it "doesn't protect Rocky Ripple, but at least it doesn't stink as bad as the other two proposed alignments."
He added that the city needs space and support as it deliberates its next steps.
"We need as many allies as we can get right now," Barcom said.
The Corps tries to soothe Rocky Ripple's concerns by assuring the public that, while the levee upgrades won't protect Rocky Ripple, they won't make the flooding issues any worse in the area. Rocky Ripple residents are not convinced by this argument because, economically at least, the lack of added flood protection has caused flood insurance for new residents in the neighborhood to skyrocket.
The grant process that funds flood control projects is a competitive process nationwide and that the proposal must be economically justified. To include Rocky Ripple did not make economic sense Schueler said, explaining that the Corps uses environmental, economic and engineering considerations in its metrics.
When pressed on how he would respond to citizens who take offense to the notion that it makes economic sense to include some of the people along the river, but not all of them, Schueler repeated his commitment to the Corps regulation that new projects not re-locate problems from one area to another.
"I understand (residents concerns)," he said. "I'm not sure how to respond beyond what I've said. We can't participate in projects that don't have a positive cost-benefit ratio. ... Going through the process, there wasn't an alternative that would protect Rocky Ripple, but it won't make it worse."
The Corps initially undertook the flood control project in response to a request from the city in the late '80s for the Corps to intercede on flooding issues along the river. The studies were initiated in 1991.
Wrapping up the final environmental impact statement feedback is just another step in a long process, it's to the point where we have to have some back and forth with the city," Labashosky said.