Wetlands Project At Aberdeen Regional Airport Remains Stymied

Aug. 14--Two hours of talk, but no consensus.

Untimely, that was the result of a Thursday morning meeting concerning a water management project planned for the Aberdeen Regional Airport. The city is seeking approval of a right-of-way occupancy application from the Brown County Commission to move the work forward. But the application was tabled at the Aug. 5 county meeting because commissioners wanted to learn more. And it was downed on a 3-2 vote at this week's meeting.

Tuesday, county commissioners will almost certainly discuss the application again because the first part of the airport's water management work is scheduled to be bid that same day.

In other words, city and airport officials are in a bit of a bind. Without the county's OK of the application, the job can't proceed as planned.

The airport proposal is the result of a Federal Aviation Administration environmental assessment finished a couple of years ago. The assessment's aim is to make the airport safer by eliminating wildlife and separating the two airport runways, which now intersect.

Separating the runways should eliminate confusion by some pilots, especially those who aren't from the region and aren't familiar with the airfield, said Cody Roggatz, Aberdeen's transportation director.

But before that work can be done, wetlands have to be eliminated at the airport, he said. So the wetland areas on the airfield have to be filled in. They'll be restored near Elm Lake. To offset the filled-in wetlands, two holding ponds that will help control drainage flow from airport property will be built. The ponds will have two pumps that will, during times of excess moisture, push water off of airport property and through about 21,000 feet of piping to the south and west. Eventually, it would wind up in Moccasin Creek just south of the city's wastewater processing plant.

Roggatz and Mike Schmidt, an engineer with Helms and Associates, which does engineering work for airport projects, said the project won't push any extra water into Moccasin Creek. It will only get there quicker and in a controlled fashion.

"I guess, to put it bluntly, I just don't believe you guys," said John Graham, who lives in Northville Township. "We're going to get stuck with a bunch more water, and we just don't need it."

Others who own land along Moccasin Creek south of the wastewater treatment plant echoed Graham's comments. They talked about a number of their concerns, including:

-- Once the water arrives on their land, they don't have an option for draining it, so they just have to hold it.

-- The project will get water into Moccasin Creek faster that it would reach the creek if left to drain naturally across land. When it drains on its own, some sinks into the ground and some evaporates, meaning they have to take on less.

-- Not all of the water the holding ponds would collect and pump would otherwise end up in Moccasin Creek, a point on which the two sides could not agree.

-- Groundwater could seep into the holding ponds, which will have clay bottoms, resulting in extra drainage.

In times of flooding, Roggatz said, the airport could hold water in the ponds. As a rule, the FAA gives the airport 96 hours to empty the ponds, but exceptions could be made, he said.

Getting wildlife, especially large birds, off of the airport is a big concern of the FAA's, Roggatz said. During a 10-day stretch in July, he said, there were three aircraft/bird strikes at the airport.

Freddie Robinson, who lives in southern Brown County and used to be the county Emergency Management director, said he understand the need for a safe airport. But he doesn't want any extra water.

"The south end of the county is the holding pond for the north end of the county," a point nobody disputed.

Brown County's flat terrain is a big problem. Moccasin Creek flows into the James River, which is slow-moving in the best of times, especially into Spink County. Meanwhile, Brown takes on water from Marshall County and North Dakota. And southern Brown County serves as a bit of a basin.

One of the airport pumps, that would only be used after routine rainfall, would pump water from the holding ponds at 1,000 gallons per minute, Roggatz said. The other, which would be used only after extremely heavy rainfall, would pump at 5,000 gallons a second.

Both of those totals are slower than the rate of natural flow from the airfield, said Terry Helms, of Helms and Associates. And, he said, the airport property comprises 0.6 percent of all of the land that drains into the Moccasin Creek watershed.

For perspective, Roggatz said, no airport runways were flooded nor did the airport have to close in 2007 when about 8 inches of rain fell in 24 hours in Aberdeen. So the airport property can take on a lot of moisture.

Helms said the holding ponds are built to handle a 10-year rainfall event. That's 3.7 inches in 24 hours, he said.

The 2007 instance is the only time there's that much rain in recent years, Schmit said.

It would be great if a holding pond could be built at the airport and the water left to evaporate, Helms said. But that would attract wildlife. Roggatz said the Aberdeen airport has far more wildlife than any of the other airports he's worked.

At lunch time, the meeting ended civilly. But the landowners, who have had heard past claims about water diversions and drainage projects not impacting them, had not changed their minds.

Brown County Commissioner Mike Wiese said that, in the future, it might be worth considering some type of emergency outlet between Moccasin Creek near the city wastewater plant 4 miles southeast to the James River. It could operate in times of flooding to eliminate some of the floodwaters in southern Brown County, he said.

Getting the FAA to pay for that type of project, though, is a long shot.

The FAA would pay 90 percent of the planned airport work, with the other 10 percent being split by the city and the state. The expected cost is $8 million to $10 million.

Robinson said the best way to improve draining is starting from the south and working to the north. And he meant well south of Brown County along the James.

Some other landowners said they didn't feel like the process has been very well publicized.

But there was a public hearing in fall 2012 about the work that was properly advertised and publicized, Helms said.

In that early going, draining the water east straight into the James was contemplated. But, Helms said, moving the water south and west to Moccasin Creek proved to be more feasible. So far, though, it hasn't been agreeable.

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Copyright 2014 - American News, Aberdeen, S.D.

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