BedfellowsDec 2, 2012 By Steven R. Peck
The county is in no hurry to hug the feds on flood prevention, but there's not much to fear
No one could ever accuse Fremont County of rushing into a first-of-its kind partnership with the state and federal governments that would stabilize the banks of the Wind River as a safeguard against future flooding.
There is reluctance so far on the county's part, but unless an obvious cause for alarm crops up soon, there would seem to be ample reason for the county to go forward with the project.
Before it happened, our county didn't have much experience with flooding on the scale that occurred in the double-whammy summers of 2010 and 2011. By no means was flooding unheard of here, but floods of such magnitude and proximity in time were not in anyone's memory banks, nor anyone's most pessimistic expectations.
No one can be certain of exactly where flooding will occur -- the 2010 and 2011 flood patterns were far from identical -- but there are certain trouble spots where both experience and analysis tell us flooding is more likely to occur if conditions conducive to flooding are recognized.
In recent years Lander has engaged in deep discussions about flood mitigation in places where the Popo Agie River is closest to town. In Riverton, the area just south of town near the fabled "Big Bend" of the Wind River has flooded often enough that many houses and other structures in the vicinity now are ringed with sandbags year-round.
But the floods of those two fateful summers arrived before some of the larger mitigation efforts could be undertaken, or in places where no such work had even been contemplated in a feasible way.
Then came the water, and we all know the outcome: bridges washed out, roadways undermined, millions of dollars in property damages along at least a hundred miles of waterways from Kinnear to Sinks Canyon, from Arapahoe to the Big Bend -- much of it in places that had never seen flooding, or did so infrequently that they were characterized as "hundred-year floods."
Well, we got a couple of hundred-year floods in consecutive summers, and now the state has a proposal for the county to do some preventive work at a particularly vulnerable spot involving rebuilding of a riverbank, reinforcing a problem area of the bank nearby, and some engineering to better ensure that the river will follow a less destructive channel when the waters rise again.
It all sounds good in theory, but in practice it would involve the federal government to a significant degree, and there is an almost unconquerable sense of misgiving on the part of many local government officials in Wyoming when any plan requires "getting in bed with the feds," to use a term popular among many in our deep-red state.
The particular entity in this case is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known as FEMA. It has certain stipulations on what it will and won't pay for. The Wyoming Department of Transportation, which essentially would be the construction contractor on the work, has laid out many of the particulars to the Fremont County Commissioners, but our local leaders still say they want to know a bit more before deciding whether to proceed.
There is nothing wrong with that approach for a while longer. We're not not flood season. This is important, but it is not yet urgent. By all means our county leaders ought to satisfy themselves that the cooperating agencies can be trusted to do the work, and pay for it, as advertised.
But when federal experts arrive with a solution and a checkbook, we ought to have a very good reason for turning them away. This needn't become a political argument or be refused on philosophical grounds, if those are the concerns. So far the county's reluctance has not been put in those terms. It's probably a good idea to keep it that way.
Nothing specific has been revealed at this point to discourage us from taking advantage of this opportunity. But the consequences of not doing so could be severe. As one state official told the commissioners, if the county doesn't proceed, we will enter into a "wait and see" mode on flood preparations in the vulnerable area. That ought to worry us at least as much as this limited, short-term venture with the federal government. We've waited twice before. And we saw.