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Construction of the Wichita-Valley Center Flood Control Project

​Project Inception

The 1940's and 1950's was a period of rapid growth within and around Wichita, especially in the lower reaches of Gypsum and Dry Creeks along the City's eastern edge. Much of this development occurred in the floodways and flood plains of these streams. These areas were often unregulated since it was outside the jurisdiction of the City's zoning and subdivision regulations. From this growth sprang many of the problems which the area is still faced with today: 1) inadequate floodway easements, 2) substantial development prone to flooding.

Meanwhile development within the City progressed with little active handling of storm water runoff. Streets built on very flat grades with very minimal storm water facilities met the standards of the day, but were not designed to handle the major flooding occurring. Localized street flooding and small tributary flooding caused minor property damage and inconvenience to the public. However, concerns about these problems were secondary to the extensive property damage and threat to the public health and welfare caused by floods on the Arkansas River. (Reference Drainage Problem History)

The floods of 1939 followed closely by the 1945 floods, lead to the creation of the "Flood Control Committee" in 1945 to develop a solution to this continuous problem. They met with the Tulsa District Office of the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to petition them to reinstate the plan spelled out in the 1936 Pick-Sloan Plan. The City and County agreed to become the local sponsor with the USACE as the planner/developer.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers developed a plan for a floodway project that would alleviate the majority of the flooding problems caused by the two rivers converging in the center of the city. Between the years of 1948 and 1958, they cooperated with the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County officials to complete the Wichita-Valley Center Floodway and made arrangements for its future maintenance. This project focused on controlling the large scale floods that caused the city the most damage. The Greenways Commission History of the Big Ditch details the sequence of events.

Construction Management

The USACE hired Calvin Scholfield of New York, an ex-Colonel, to serve as the first Flood Control Director in February 1949. After attempting to use local engineers and surveyors without success, he hired his wartime top enlisted officer, Robert McShane, from New Mexico, to head aid him in the surveying. He in turn hired M.S. Mitchell, from West Texas, who was leaving the Air Force to come to Wichita as the Office Engineer to get the survey started. The first offices of the Flood Control Office were at the Airport on George Washington Boulevard. Director Scholfield's work diaries from 1948 through 1952 can be viewed at this link. [no link]

Radio interviews recorded in the 1950's on vinyl records and convered to digital can be listened to at this link. [no link]

George Wilton, a native of Massachusetts, was hired as the Utility Relocation Engineer on November 10, 1949. He worked on the project until November 15, 1951. He returned to the Massachusetts Highway Department to be near Family. Calvin Scholfield obtained permission to hire George back to replace himself as the Project Director. Scholfield's last day was February 29, 1952. George Wilton began as Project Director March 17, 1952. Wilton named M.S. Mitchell as the Assistant Project Director.

In May 1957, following the major flood that month, the new City Manager Frank Backstrom reorganized the city's management structure, making George Wilton the Superintendent of the Public Works Maintenance, which included Street Maintenance and Flood Control. Mitchell became the Flood Control Superintendent. The Flood Control office was moved to the fourth floof of the City Hall Annex Building. Street Cleaning and Snow/Ice Removal were later added to the Maintenance Division under Wilton.


Work on the project was initiated on May 8, 1950, and construction of the project was completed on March 4, 1959 except for additional riprap and other minor repair work in project units previously accepted for operation and maintenance by the local sponsor.

Construction Sections

The Wichita-Valley Center Flood Control Project (WVCFCP) was completed in several sections:

  • Arkansas River Training Levees
  • Little Arkansas River Floodway
  • Chisholm Creek Diversion
  • Big Slough Cowskin Floodway
  • Riverside Levees
  • Drainage Structures
  • No. 1
  • No. 2
  • No. 3
  • No. 4
  • No. 5
  • Lincoln Street Dam
  • East Branch Interceptor Channel

Post Construction

BigDitchAccolade.pngIn 1959, the Wichita-Valley Center Flood Control Project (dubbed the Big Ditch) was completed and placed into operation by local authorities on June 16. It consisted of 47,00 acres of residential, industrial, commerical and agricultural lands. Indexed to reflect 1981 price levels, the value of physical property was estimated at $695,680,000 and the annual value of crops was estimated at $2,040,000. The estimated damage prevented through September 1980 was $123,557,000.

This project, which diverts flood waters from the Arkansas River around the west side of the City, has prevented millions of dollars in flood damage since its completion. It also marked a turning point in the focus of drainage management in the City of Wichita. An increased awareness of development drainage considerations also evolved during this period as development proceeded rapidly in the upper reaches of major tributaries in far east and far west Wichita. New subdivisions were reviewed during this period by the Flood Control Division, Department of Public Works. A general formulation of a financial policy was also achieved in the mid-1970s to address the new drainage requirements being placed on new subdivisions. (These policies were formally adopted by the City Commission in 1980).

The Big Ditch was nominated as one of the top 12 engineering feats of 1960 in the United States by the Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Awards at the American Society of Civil Engineers convention.

What is a...


A levee is a natural or artificial slope or wall used to regulate water levels, usually for the purpose of preventing flooding. It is usually earthen and often parallel to the course of a river or coastline. The total length of all levees in the WVCFC project is 97.35 miles. Levee sections are designated C, D, E, F, J, K, L, M, N, P, R, S, and T. In general, the crown width of levees is 8 feet, and the crown is sloped for drainage, as shown on the contract drawings. Embankment slopes are 1 on 2 for the first 10 feet down from the crest and 1 on 3 for the remainder of the height, except where there is surplus of fill material at which locations the riverside slopes are 1 on 3. The average height of the levees is 9.5 feet. They are seeded or turfed except in areas where erosion from stream flows is anticipated, in which areas the riverside slop is protected with riprap.


A floodwall is an artificial barrier usually vertical used to temporarily contain waters from a waterway which may be temporarily out of banks. They are usually placed in locations where space is scarce. The Wichita and Valley Center levee project includes one location where a floodwall was constructed to avoid excessive costs for right-of-way occupied by a commerical establishment. This floodwall is located on the left bank of Middle Branch Interception Canal between Stations 1129+58.62D and 1133+33.62D. It is a reinforced concrete cantilever-type floodwall resting on a 2-foot-thick concrete slab. The wall is 9 feet high, 1 foot thick at the top, 3 feet thick at the bottom, and is battered 1 on 6 on each side.

Diversion Canal and Improved Channel

Diversion Canals are channels or conduits constructed to divert water from its normal course during high water events. Diversion canals and improved channels in the project consist of Chisholm Creek Diversion (including Middle Branch of Chisholm Creek and Water Branch Chisholm Creek), Big Slough - Cowskin Floodway, Little Arkansas River Floodway, East Branch Interception and Wichita Drainage Canal, and Big Slough Diversion Channel. The canals and improved channels have a total length of 40.9 miles, side slopes of 1 on 2.5, varying bottom widths, and an average depth of 9.5 feet.

Control Structure

There are drainage structures through the levees, including the existing drainage structures that enter the East Branch Interception Canal. There are five control structures which permit low flows to continue through the natural channel, and during periods of flood flow limit inflow into the natural channel to amounts equal to or less that channel capacity. There are a total of 73 interior drainage structures through the levees, each provided with automatic flap gates. A number of the larger drainage structures and those draining important interior areas are also equipped with manually operated slide gates for emergency closure, if the automatic gates fail to function properly. One ungated drainage structure discharges runoff from an interior area through two 48-inch diameter C.M. pipes under the Middle Branch Interception Canal at about Station I114+90Q (centerline of floodway). Numerous drainage facilities, such as ditch diversion and side drainage structures adjacent to the levee, are provided for adequate interior drainage. A pumping plant is located approximately 600 feet north of Highway 54 on the left bank of the floodway, landward of Levee D. The purpose of the pumping plant is to remove storm sewer water from the land side of Levee D.

Toe Drain and Relief Well

Toe Drains were constructed at locations where pervious soils, together with the levee section, are conducive to the formation of sand boils. These are 7' by 2.5' trenches dug near the landside toe of the levee, then backfilled with 2' of pervious filter material with a 6" nearly horizontal, perforated bituminous-coated, corrugated metal pipe located in the center. Then semi-compacted fill is placed on top. The pipe is sloped to provide drainage to vertical, pressure-relief riser pipes spaced at 400 and 500 foot intervals. The vertical pipes are 6" bituminous-coated corrugated metal and are provided with vent hoods.

There are 68 relief wells in the inlet headwall aprons, of the larger gated drainage structures beneath the levees, where the top stratum of the structures inundations is too pervious to prevent possible sand boils beneath or adjacent to the structures which might cause undermining and failure of the structures. The wells penetrate into the underlying stratum, large enough to contain a 22-inch O.D. steel casing, lowering a slotted 6-inch inside diameter wood pipe inside, withdrawing the casing and backfilling around the slotted wood stove pipe with a gravel filter material to within 1 foot of the top of water table. Non-slotted wood stove pipe and compacted impervious material were placed to the top of water table. The remainder of the installation to a point 1 foot above original ground is an 8-inch diameter, bituminous-coated, corrugated metal pipe with a 1-foot 2-inch diameter, bituminous-coated, metal cap supported by four struts attached to the pipe to provide a 3-inch clearance for flow of water.


Jetties are any variety of structures used in riverine systems which extend into the water from the bank and serve to direct the current. There are 13,136 feet of main line and 6,250 feet of retard jetties at three locations on the Arkansas River Training Levee portion of the project. Also, there are 4,256 feet of main line and 2,038 feet of retard jetties at a critical location near the mouth of the Big Slough - Cowskin Floodway.

Contact Us

Jim Hardesty, Stormwater Division Manager
P: (316) 268-8317

Public Works & Utilities
Stormwater Management Division
City Hall, 8th Floor
455 N Main
Wichita, KS 67202

Sedgwick County | City of Wichita