Johnson County using watershed-based approach to collaborate with cities on flooding issues

Johnson County public works staff invited city leaders and the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners on Nov. 7 to discuss progress on a watershed-based approach to flooding issues in the region.

Johnson County is trying a new approach to stormwater management and flooding mitigation: The establishment of Watershed Organizations, agreements between cities across the county to collaborate on stormwater improvement efforts.

The new approach seeks to resolve watershed, flooding and stormwater issues upstream before they become more expensive problems downstream.

“We think that this is far and away a better approach than what we’ve had in the past,” said Lee Kellenberger, county public works staff, to the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners last week, when the board took a deep dive into program details and strategy.

Kellenberger said the county’s stormwater funds have always supported the projects where the worst flooding has occurred, and the county’s approach will continue to do so.

Lee Kellenberger, Johnson County public works staff

“We really want to just prioritize based on the needs of the watersheds, not on the needs of the communities, necessarily,” he said. “Let’s do a science-based approach. Water flows downhill. If we took the jurisdictional lines off the map, and we just looked at the streams, where would we put the solutions? That’s really where we’re heading.”

County public works staff acknowledged that there is no obligation for the cities to participate in the Watershed Organizations. However, the organization is the new mechanism for the cities to participate in the county’s Stormwater Management Program — and access county funds to supplement city-led projects on stormwater improvements.

For watershed improvements, the county is proposing that if a city’s watershed improvement project meets a certain level of risk reduction or a project impact is of greater magnitude or scope, those projects may be funded 100% by the county. Other projects would have 50% of costs covered by the county, and 50% by cities.

Previously, the county would pay for 75% of watershed improvements, and each city would pay 25% projects.

The underlying goal of the Watershed Organizations is to change the organization of the Stormwater Management Program “to align funding with the needs of each watershed in Johnson County,” according to county documents. The development of the Watershed Organization is one component of Johnson County’s 2019 Strategic Asset Management Plan.

Kellenberger noted that the strategic plan cost about $60,000 to create, and about $300,000 to implement portions of the plan. There is no direct cost for a city to join a Watershed Organization.

Commissioners Michael Ashcraft wanted to ensure cities could opt out in the future, should city leaders change their minds in the future. His colleague, Becky Fast, said “change is hard,” especially for smaller cities in the northeastern corner of the county “rely heavily on this program.”

Johnson County is divided into six watershed groups based on impact from local water sources. Cities in northeast Johnson County are located in Watershed 1 (impacted by Turkey Creek and Brush Creek), and Watershed 2 (impacted by Indian Creek and Tomahawk Creek). Shawnee is located in both Watershed 1 — Turkey Creek — and Watershed 6 — Mill Creek.

Below is a chart of the watershed groups.

And here is a map of Johnson County divided into the six watershed groups.

The development of the Watershed Organizations has been in the works for two years, during which the county identified the scope and needs of the six watershed groups in the county. Meanwhile, the cities in Johnson County are considering adoption of their agreement to participate in the Watershed Organization.

Several cities have confirmed they’ve already signed on, including Fairway, Lenexa, Mission, Mission Hills, Overland Park, Prairie Village, Roeland Park, Shawnee and Westwood Hills.

Courtney Christensen, city administrator of Mission Hills

Courtney Christensen, city administrator of Mission Hills, who has been involved in the development of the Watershed Organizations and forming of the agreements with participating cities, said the efforts thus far to address stormwater issues from a regional perspective have driven the process.

“We have given a lot of time and a lot of effort and a lot of discussion and a lot of disagreement and worked our way through that process,” Christensen said. “So I think the process, from my viewpoint, has been extremely positive.”

Previously, stormwater improvements had been considered and carried out independently, by each city, with minimal collaboration. By joining these Watershed Organizations, participating cities are agreeing to cooperate to address watershed issues.

Christensen said a city-led effort a few years ago by some of the cities impacted by flooding and watershed from Rock Creek had previously tried to address those issues collaboratively. However, without county financial support and leadership, it was not effective enough because of differences and squabbles between those cities in northeast Johnson County.

“I think that this is only a benefit,” Christensen added. “I cannot see a downside to it.”

The county will formalize the new Watershed Organizations program next year and plan to begin funding project development in 2021.

Editor’s note: This story is being updated periodically as more cities in Johnson County continue announcing plans to join the Watershed Organizations. Last update: 3:37 p.m. Nov. 14.