Kansas community benefits by turning trouble into treasure

Successful stormwater solutions abound in Lenexa

Donald W. Baker, P.E., Water Resources Project Manager, Black & Veatch Corporation, Kansas City, Missouri
Michael T. Beezhold, Watershed Manager, City of Lenexa, Kansas
Les Lampe, Ph.D., P.E., Director of Water Resources, Black & Veatch Corporation, Kansas City, Missouri

Historic wisdom helped shape future planning in Lenexa, Kansas, where city and public works leaders have put the words of Albert Einstein into practice by developing innovative stormwater management solutions that will effectively address both quantity and quality issues for years to come.

"The many people who have participated in the development and implementation of Lenexa's watershed and stormwater management programs and plans share Einstein's philosophy," says City of Lenexa Director of Public Works Ronald C. Norris. "We've collectively demonstrated that 'We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.'"

Whereas stormwater runoff has historically been perceived as a problem to be rapidly swept away, the previously widespread practices of channeling and concrete lining of natural streams and clearing of riparian corridors have recently given way to more environmentally friendly approaches. As communities across the United States begin to view stormwater as a water resource asset instead of a liability, the Coon Creek Watershed study, design, and soon-to-be-completed construction exemplify Lenexa's forward thinking.

Rainy-day dilemma
Lenexa is a suburban community of nearly 50,000 residents in Johnson County, Kansas, in the southwestern part of the metropolitan Kansas City area. Approximately a third of the city's 32 square miles has been developed to date, with development picking up pace within the past decade due to the city's growing reputation as a desirable place to live and work.

In 1996, city leaders initiated a community vision process to provide direction and focus both for changes in the maturing areas of the city and for future development. The resulting long-range plan, Vision 2020, detailed the types and nature of desired development, infrastructure, quality of life, and goals. With Vision 2020, the city established the intent to "maintain a balance between Lenexa's natural resources and man-made environments while preserving key natural features and promoting quality growth and development." The document also led to the eventual creation of a stormwater utility.

Although Lenexa has not generally been plagued by flooding, the metropolitan area was hard hit by a 100-year storm event just as Vision 2020 began to generate serious discussion about area stormwater management. The local storm of the century was witnessed by football fans across the country as the Kansas City Chiefs played the Seattle Seahawks on national television in October 1998. Major flooding ravaged the area that day, with loss of life in Lenexa and other cities.

As development of previously untouched areas accelerated, staff and policy makers began to scrutinize past practices so as to optimize future development. As the city, which had traditionally perceived stormwater as an excess to be eliminated, experienced localized flooding and erosion as a result of existing practices, public works leaders sought a new approach to flood control. At about the same time, it became evident that Lenexa, along with hundreds of other cities, would also need to address the water quality issues related to stormwater management under new requirements imposed by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase II of the Clean Water Act.

"Like many other communities, we were collecting and expediting the departure of stormwater, with a nodding attempt at retention of the 100-year storm," says Norris. "Redefining stormwater as an asset on which to capitalize rather than a problem to be solved, adopting a greener approach, and shifting our focus from reaction to prevention has not only increased public and developer support of stormwater infrastructure projects but also saved money."

Converting stormwater into a community asset
Lenexa has developed a proactive, integrated, watershed-based approach to stormwater management intended to reduce flooding, protect water quality and wildlife habitat, and provide recreational opportunities. The city's Rain to Recreation Program, emulated in other Heartland cities, encompasses construction of new lakes, streamside parks, and trails for recreational enjoyment and property-value enhancement; provision of technical assistance to developers and builders; and implementation of broad-based educational programs to build community awareness, support, and pride. Capital improvements include the design and construction of five lakes and associated water quality features such as wetlands, bioretention cells, and porous asphalt parking lots.

New ordinances prepared and adopted by Lenexa established stream setback requirements for developing areas of the city (pictured here) and also addressed sedimentation and erosion control. (Credit: Patti Banks Associates)

New city ordinances simultaneously address sedimentation and erosion control, stream setback requirements, and related issues. Efforts by Lenexa and Black & Veatch contributed to the development of more environmentally sensitive site design and construction standards and practices that incorporate bioretention and other low-impact solutions for stormwater storage and conveyance. The new development standards were prepared for and adopted by the Kansas City Metro Chapter of APWA in November 2003 (www.kcapwa.net/specifications.asp). In April 2004, Lenexa set the pace for the Kansas City Metropolitan Area by becoming the first municipality in the region to adopt these standards. The city council simultaneously adopted application of a capital recovery fee of nearly $61 million to support the aggressive capital improvement activities of the Rain to Recreation Program—approving the notion that growth should pay for growth.

The most prominent component of the city's stormwater management program and watershed master plan is scheduled for completion this summer (2006). The Coon Creek Watershed study and plan, together with the design of Lake Lenexa and related improvements, exemplify today's stormwater solutions—solutions that not only prevent flooding and enhance water and environmental quality but also create desirable public amenities.

The multifaceted watershed management plan developed for Coon Creek focuses on flood management, recreation opportunities, public involvement, and water quality protection. Although flood-prone land such as that found along Coon Creek typically has a lower commercial value than upland areas, flood-prone valleys provide excellent opportunities for parks and other recreational facilities. An effective public involvement program gave residents a chance to provide input about preferred recreational facilities as well as feedback on design concepts. The water quality element of the Coon Creek plan addresses water quality modeling and monitoring, stream protection and restoration, and wetland systems.

Stormwater wetlands are shallow ponds, depressions, or channels that are vegetated with aquatic, emergent, or water-tolerant plants that rely upon natural, microbial, hydrological, and physiochemical processes to treat stormwater. Such wetlands have been developed in conjunction with the Coon Creek work to reduce flow rates and volumes during storm events, to provide surface treatment and preclude the need for downstream lake dredging, and to provide green space and wildlife habitat with associated opportunities for fishing and general enjoyment of nature.

Lake Lenexa will provide stormwater storage as well as scenic enjoyment; fountains will be a focal point. (Credit: Black & Veatch Corporation)

Lake Lenexa, the city's premier Rain to Recreation lake and most significant element of the Coon Creek watershed plan, will encompass 35 acres nestled in 240 acres of parkland that includes preserved woodlands and streamways. The overall project includes the development of three wetlands; trails; a boat ramp for small, non-motorized boats; boardwalks and docks; stairs to provide access to fishing spots and wildlife habitats; picnic shelters and restrooms; and a future amphitheater. Three miles of trails connect the lake to surrounding neighborhoods. The architecturally unique dam and spillway were designed to symbolize the water cycle as water moves from nature into the urban environment and then back to nature. A pedestrian bridge that spans the spillway will offer visitors a good view of cascading pools and a fountain.

"The Coon Creek plan and facilities design successfully delivers on the promise of Rain to Recreation," says Norris, a past APWA President. "Lenexa's vision and new perspective on stormwater management coupled with specialized expertise from Black & Veatch on the Coon Creek project will soon yield flood protection, natural stream preservation, improved water quality, and new recreational and educational opportunities for our citizens. It's a great example of putting the public first in public works."

Lake Lenexa and other Rain to Recreation Program endeavors can be viewed at www.raintorecreation.org.

Donald W. Baker can be reached at (913) 458-3093 or bakerdw@bv.com; Michael T. Beezhold can be reached at (913) 477-7680 or mbeezhold@ci.lenexa.ks.us; and Dr. Les Lampe can be reached at (913) 458-3363 or lampelk@bv.com.