Flood Prevention in Dayton

During the last two weeks of March, the Dayton area observed the centennial of the most tragic event in its history, the Great Flood of 1913. The Dayton Daily News published the stirring accounts of the people who were there to see the Great Miami River rise above its levies and the water levels downtown reach a height of 20 feet in some places, the local PBS affiliate THINKTV replayed its excellent homegrown documentary “Goodbye, the Levee Has Broken,” narrated by Yellow Springs resident Tony Dallas, and several libraries and historical organizations displayed their rich photographic records of the disaster and its aftermath. While there is no question that the last flood in Dayton’s history was its most devastating—hundreds of people and thousands of animals dead and nearly 2 billion dollars damage in 2013 terms—it was just that: the last flood in its history. The reason for that is something created by former Antioch College president Arthur Morgan, an ingenious invention called the Miami Conservancy District.

Even as the waters receded on March 27th, Governor James Cox, a Dayton native, established the Dayton Citizen’s Relief Commission (later reorganized as the Flood Prevention Committee) that produced the following article in 1914, composed of the city’s leading industrialists. It was their efforts that brought Arthur Morgan to the Miami Valley in the first place, and in the second place, it was his presence that, as then lay vice president of the Unitarian Association, resulted in his appointment in 1919 to fill the last Unitarian seat on the Antioch College Board of Trustees. 

The original of this month’s reprint was put together as part of a larger effort to get residents of the Miami Valley on board with the Conservancy District. Taken from a four page publication made to resemble a newspaper, it explains the plan for flood control and its considerable benefits in the plainest possible language in what would have been the most accessible form of print communication of the time. The Flood Prevention Committee was facing considerable distrust, particularly from farmers north of the city over the Conservancy Law that proposed seizing fertile land by eminent domain that lay within the flood plain. Opponents of the Vonderheide Conservancy Act as it was known took their argument all the way to the US Supreme Court not once but twice, and each time the legislation was upheld. Once it cleared the courts, Arthur Morgan directed construction of what would become not only the first major watershed district in US history, but perhaps the most successful, having held back as many as 1700 floods since its completion in 1922.

Flood Prevention

To forever protect the lives and property of the people of the Miami Valley from floods; to fix the charges against those who are benefited, and nobody else; to reimburse everyone who is in any way damaged through the construction of such works as may be necessary; to pay a just price for all property in any way injured; to complete the work in the shortest possible length of time—these are the objects of the Conservancy Law recently enacted by the Ohio Legislature.

Before the mud had been removed from the streets of Dayton, following the flood of 1913, a number of citizens of that place began figuring upon flood prevention. The damage caused by the high waters before them. The possibility of another flood could not be overlooked. Either Dayton must be protected or it must be deserted as a city. What was true of Dayton was practically true of the whole valley.

After numerous conferences, it was decided to call in engineers who have specialized in flood prevention. It is well for all of us, right at the beginning, to understand that flood prevention is an exact science. So, after considerable investigation, an engineering firm was engaged which has the widest experience in flood prevention and reclamation work. It was ascertained, in fact, that they were specialists in this line, having done nothing else for the past dozen or more years. The members of the firm had had many years of training in government service, and had gathered about them, from every branch of engineering service, a corps of trained experts in every phase of flood prevention work.

Experienced Engineers Made Study of Valley

They did no contracting, but acted only as engineers in the preparation of plans and the overseeing of the construction work. It was further ascertained that construction work was then progressing on different projects in ten or more states according to plans prepared by them, which will reclaim several million acres of land from inundation and flood devastation.

Some of the largest excavating machinery ever built, as great in capacity as that used in the Panama Canal, was also in service on their work.

Having ascertained all this, the president of this firm, Mr.  Arthur E. Morgan, was requested to come to Dayton and consult with the members of the Flood Prevention Committee, none of whom had ever seen him and none of whom were in any way interested either in his firm or in any certain flood prevention plan.

Mr. Morgan was asked if Dayton could be protected from damage by flood. He was also asked if the whole valley could be protected. He said he did not know; that he was not familiar with the conditions. He was asked if he could find out. He said he could. The committee wanted to know what kind of a plan would be favored. He said he favored no certain plan; that in some communities one plan was feasible and in other communities other plans were practicable, and that whether any certain plan was adopted depended upon so many things that he was unwilling to venture a statement until after the most careful investigation.

Last Summer’s Work Gives Us Knowledge

Mr. Morgan was employed to make the investigation. In addition, a consulting board of three engineers of national, if not international, reputation was retained to make sure that no error of judgment might be made, and that nothing might be overlooked in this great undertaking. Work began in May, 1913. About sixty men were placed in the field. The entire Miami Valley was surveyed. The history of storms in the middle west was studied. The rainfall of the state and the valley was considered. The flow of the streams, the nature of the soil and the stone and the gravel, the contour of the land—everything that could in any way affect the proposition—were carefully studied. The amount of water that fell in March, 1913, was calculated, the length of time that it takes to pass a given point, the depth it would have reached, and the acres it would have overflowed had it been stored in reservoirs—all of these things were put down in exact figures.

After working with this large corps of assistants all summer, Mr. Morgan made his report to the committee. But he did not confine his report to any certain plan of flood prevention. The committee found from his report not only methods of protecting Dayton, but that the whole Miami Valley could be protected at the same time, through what was known as the dry reservoir plan. But at the same time it was found that under the then existing laws of the state no such work could be begun or carried on. The laws of Ohio had not been made with any such flood as 1913 in view.

Laws Needed First

We had a number of drainage laws and laws pertaining to the flow of streams, but they had been passed year after year to meet local emergencies, and there was not upon the statute books any law that would enable the people of any section of the state to protect themselves against unusually high waters. So it was found that the first thing necessary in promoting flood protection would be adequate laws under which to operate. A committee was appointed to draft such laws, and the present statute, known as the Conservancy law, is the result of its labors.

This law is the result of the most careful deliberation upon the part of earnest and capable men. The law is today pronounced by disinterested persons as the most perfect statute that has ever been put upon the statute books of any state in the Union. Perfect, not only in its ability to accomplish its purpose, but also in its fairness to all concerned. There is scarcely a provision of this act which has not a successful adjudicated prototype in some other law in some state where the flood problem has been a vital one for years. This law differs from others only in its completeness, and for that reason it will be copied, undoubtedly, by other flood-stricken states. It deprives no man of his rights without trial by jury, and provides compensation for every one in any manner damaged.

New Conservancy Law Gives People Protection

Under this law the people of any community of the state may devise and prosecute any system of flood prevention that they desire. The law confines no community to any certain plan of flood protection. It gives the people of the community the right to protect themselves from flood damages at their own expense and in their own way. It violates none of the rules of court procedure. It robs no man of his day in court. It compels no man to go into a strange jurisdiction to have his grievances determined, leaving to every one the right to appeal to a jury of his own people in his own local courts. It removes the whole scheme of flood protection from the field of politics, and leaves to the courts of the respective counties the determination even of the men who are to have charge of flood prevention work. But it does make it possible for the people of a community to pursue the work of flood prevention without delay.

Under this law the people of a given community may petition the Common Pleas Courts for the creation of a Conservancy District. If, in the judgment of the courts, the creation of such a district would be to the interests of the people, a Board of Directors of three people is appointed to carry out the work. This Board of Directors is then, in a sense, supreme, subject to the limitations of the law. The court is asked then to appoint additional men, to be known as appraisers. These men are to have charge of the valuing of the property damaged or benefited. But the process may be more easily understood by showing what is now proposed in the way of carrying out the dry reservoir plan for this valley.

Six Emergency Reservoirs Proposed

The dry reservoir plan is not new—it is not the invention of the people of Dayton, nor of the engineers. It has been known and has been in use for over two hundred years, and in such a valley as this it is the safest and sanest protection that has so far been devised.

Six of these reservoirs will be constructed. They will consist of huge dams across the valley at advantageous points, with openings for the usual flow of the river; except in cases of excessively high water the streams will flow unimpeded. But the moment the water approaches the top of the bank of the stream, it gradually begins backing up into these enormous reserve basins, and here it is retarded until it can flow away in the natural channel at bankfull stage.

Naturally, a few thousand acres of land above the dams will be inundated in the case of an extreme flood. But every man who owns a foot of this land which is liable to be inundated will be reimbursed. Under the Conservancy Law it will be impossible for any Board of Directors to take property or to cause damage to property without reimbursement to the fullest extent. The damage will be fixed by the Board of Appraisers. But in the event that a property owner is dissatisfied with the amount of damages which the Board of Appraisers awards him, he may appeal to his own local courts and have the case tried by a jury of his fellow citizens.

Cost of Project Small Compared to Protection

Now, it is going to cost a great deal of money to protect the entire valley from flood damage. The amount may run as high as $17,000,000—enormous in a sense, yet insignificant compared with the loss in this valley in 1913. But the payment of this money for flood protection will be scattered over a long period of years, through the issuance of bonds to be taken care of in the future. These bonds will be sold to the best advantage, at the smallest possible rate of interest, and will mature in some thirty years. But they will be paid ultimately, and the interest upon them will be paid, not by people whose property is not involved, but by the people whose property is enhanced in value through flood protection. 

That is to say, if a man now owns a piece of property that is worth $1,000, and if it is shown that with proper flood protection it would be worth $1,500, his assessment will be based on upon the $500 enhanced value of the property, and the amount of his assessment will be the same proportion of the $500 as the total cost of the work is of the total appraised benefits. If the total cost is $17,000,000 and the total appraised benefits $85,000,000, then he will pay one-fifth of his appraisement benefits, or $100. If his house is in no way benefited by flood protection, he will not be called upon to pay any assessment whatsoever, although he may be located within the confines of what is known as the “Conservancy District.” The board of Appraisers will fix the amount of benefit, but if property owners are not satisfied with its findings they may appeal to the local courts. The example above is an extreme one; the average proportionate assessment will probably be less.

The counties and cities within the district will be called upon to pay only their just proportion according to the benefits derived. For instance, the people of an entire county must pay for a public county bridge if that bridge is washed away. It costs each taxpayer in the county something to replace it. Hence, it is but just that if the bridge is protected from flood damage the people who would have to replace the bridge should pay something toward protecting it from floods. The same thing follows with regard to the municipalities. It cost the cities of the valley, for instance, a great deal of money last year to take care of the damage to the sewers, the street intersections, the engine houses, etc., so that one who lives in a city, although he may have been located out of the flood zone, suffered financial damages on account of the flood. It is, therefore, no more than just that each city, as a corporation, should pay for a portion of the benefit which the city, as a corporation, will receive from being forever protected against a like occurrence. But no man in any city who does not own property within the actual flood zone, will be called upon to pay any individual assessment.

Reservoirs Small Compared to Flooded Area

The land that will be overflowed after the reservoirs are constructed is all farming land. It will not be destroyed for agricultural purposes; these extreme floods only occur a few times in a century, and then almost invariably in the spring, and the water will flow off gradually in time to enable farmers to produce a crop upon the land. The farmer will not be asked to bear this inconvenience without recompense; indeed, if he does not care to accept the amount of damages fixed by the appraisers, he may sell it outright to the Conservancy District, which will acquire title to it, and subsequently lease it, subject to flood easements. In the event of another flood 50 percent greater than that of 1913, approximately 38,000 acres of land will be inundated, and no more.

In short, the plan is, in times of great distress, such as that of last March, that this land, or portions of it, will be borrowed for about ten days to store the water which otherwise would cause untold suffering, loss of property, and even death. For the privilege of using this land for this purpose whenever these terrible floods come, even though it be only once in fifty years, the owner will be paid a good price per acre in advance, as a perpetual flood easement. This is the only fair and humane way. While 38,000 acres may seem to be a large area, when we compare it with the 100,000 acres of desolation of last March it becomes, by comparison, of much smaller consequence. This is still more true when the fact is considered that the 38,000 acres would be left more fertile from deposits of silt after having been used for storage, while the 100,000 acres was damaged and a large part of it practically ruined.

All Money Will Be Spent at Home

It should not be understood that this money is to be levied upon the people of the Miami Valley and sent to a foreign country. Indeed, practically every dollar of it will be spent right here in the valley. So that, in fact, the people concerned are simply drawing upon the future for this money and putting it into circulation at once. The effect of the expenditure of this money in the valley can hardly be overestimated from a purely business standpoint. For the next two or three years, while the work is under construction, it will mean that everybody in the valley who desires it will have employment, regardless of industrial conditions elsewhere. It will mean that our stores and shops and factories will be busy. It will mean that the farmers in this valley will be able to sell at good prices, hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of farm produce for which there would not otherwise be a market.

Permanent Protection for People and Property

So far as the liability of damage from the breaking of dams is concerned, that is to be absolutely and positively prevented. The dams will be built many times as strong as is necessary. They will be more than eight times as thick as they are high. They will resemble, and will be as safe and secure as, the eternal hills themselves. All of the floods, ice, and debris that ever formed in the Miami Valley would not even slightly damage them, nor cause the water to pile up higher than is contemplated.

Roadways and bridges will be secure after this great work is completed. The people residing in the homes below or above these dams may sleep in peace. The wealth which has been earned by hard labor will never again be placed in jeopardy by excessive rainfall. Peace and plenty and prosperity will continue to flow in the Miami Valley, where flowed last year a muddy stream of death and disaster. No man will receive an undue reward. No man will be damaged a single penny without being reimbursed. It is by all odds the most equitable, the most just, the most humane proposition that has been proposed, and, instead of incurring the opposition of any man or any class of men. It should have the united support of everybody who wishes to pay for what he gets, and to receive pay for that which is taken away from him.