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Burns council voices concern over flooding

As the spring runoff continues, so do concerns about flooding in some areas of the county.

At the Burns City Council meeting on Wednesday, March 22, Public Works Director Pedro Zabala told the council pumps have been in place for 10 days, pumping water from the field at the end of North Broadway into the Silvies River. He said the river did breach its bank in one area, but his department has been monitoring the situation closely.

“We’re just barely holding our own with the sandbags on the levy. It’s right up to the bottom of it, and there’s not much you can do,” Burns resident Chuck Lynde stated.

Lynde said the council needs to go out and look at the levy to get a better idea of what’s happening with the water. He explained that the pipes set in place to drain the field go straight into the river. If the water level in the field drops, the river water then begins flowing back through the pipes and back into the field.

“So when the river comes up, you can’t open the head gates to drain that field anymore,” Lynde said. “In fact, you have to shut the head gates off when the water is probably within 10 inches of the head gate.”

Lynde suggested the drain pipes be set at an angle entering the river so as to help draw water through the pipes. He added that using the pumps to drain the field is a cost to the city, and is hard on the machinery.

Zabala said the city needs to get an engineer to look at the situation, as it could save the city money if the pumps didn’t need to be used.

“If you lose the levy, you’ll flood the whole town. It’s just that simple,” Lynde said. “The next defense is the highway, but that levy is higher than the highway.”

It was brought up that when flooding occurred in 2011, there were plans put in place so the same thing didn’t happen again at a later date. Several ditches were cleaned at that time, but other corrections were never completed.

Burns Fire Chief Scott Williamson told the council the condition of the levy is such that some areas need to be rebuilt, re-engineered and re-certified.

“When we did the first mapping, that was one of the first questions, ‘Can we get this re-certified?’” Williamson said. “They [Federal Emergency Management Agency/FEMA]said they would look at it, and they didn’t. So, with the map, they looked at it and said, ‘We’re not going to give you credit for that levy.’ So that means they’re not going to certify it.”

Councilor Terri Presley suggested the city look into the possibility of getting emergency funding to correct the problems.

There was discussion on whether the new bridge put in the mid-1990s on Highway 20, just north of Burns, was contributing to the flooding. Because of the bridge structure, it holds back water rather than letting it flow unimpeded, and the water then takes a different course.

“When they took that bridge out in the middle 90s, we never had water back up, and we had more flow in the 80s to fill the refuge than we do now. We never had a flood problem,” Lynde said.

Lynde added that, in 2011, there was a second bridge, located just a short distance north of the current bridge, that was taken out, and that bridge also helped drain the now-flooded area.

It was suggested that maybe another culvert in the area would help alleviate the flooding, but that would have to be a decision made by the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Williamson reported that his department had been busy filling sandbags, and they had activated an Emergency Operation Center in the fire department building. He said, along with helping out wherever they can, his department is gathering information to be better prepared, and he suggested the city have an after-action review once the flooding has subsided.

He added that there are some residents in the county who have no way in or out of their property because of high water, so they brought in an air boat from the refuge should a medical emergency arise.


Chelsea Harrison, executive director of the Harney County Chamber of Commerce, gave a presentation to the council regarding the upcoming migratory bird festival to be held April 6-9.

Harrison said the number of seats available for tours has increased by 50 seats for this year’s event, and all vehicles used for the tours will be provided locally.

Added to the festival this year are a bike-birding tour, photography tour, a second sage grouse tour,  a second CattleWomen ranch tour, a Cork ‘n’ Canvas session, and a First Thursday Wine Walk.

The festival is about 80 percent sold out for this year.

Harrison told the council she recently attended the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association meeting, and one of the main topics of discussion was the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

“There are quite a few communities that are already filing for disaster relief now for what could possibly happen with it,” Harrison said. “What they’re concerned about is more trashing of the community, leaving extra waste, and all the extra cost to the city to have those guests here. The new number is one million in the state of Oregon. The number we had before was 100,000 to 200,000.”

Harrison said there are already 35,000 people who have registered with the Ochoco National Forest, and the local motels are 90 percent full for the date associated with the eclipse.

The chamber will be selling “eclipse glasses” for $1 each, and will be providing two pairs of glasses for each motel room, free of charge, as a welcome gift to the visitors.

Harrison added that tourism is the No. 3 industry in Eastern Oregon, bringing in $382 million, and providing 105,000 jobs.


City Manager Dauna Wensenk said she is in the process of drafting a newsletter for April to let residents know about a free Dumpster day, coordinated with the city of Hines, which gives residents an opportunity to clean up their properties before the city has to start “knocking on doors or sending out letters to get the residents to clean up.”

Wensenk said she wants to try a program this year to possibly provide up to six Dumpsters for residents. Weeds, nuisances, fences, identifying sidewalks, and the street analysis are other issues that will be addressed in the newsletter.

Wensenk said Councilor Liz Appelman had received a letter from the FEMA National Flood Insurance Program informing her that her flood insurance would be going up between 5 and 18 percent each year, and she might want to get an elevation certificate that may or may not help her. Appelman sent letters to several legislators, both state and national, letting them know about the situation. Wensenk said the cities of Burns and Hines and the county have not accepted the FEMA flood mapping, and are currently working to take some properties out of the flood plain.


In other business:

• the council approved a $100 donation to the Burns High School Class of 2017 for their all-night party;

• the council approved the closure of Washington Street from N. Broadway to N. Alder the first Thursday of each month from April to October for the First Thursday events;

• Councilor Presley reported the cemetery committee reviewed the projects that have been completed and discussed what projects are coming up next. A cemetery clean-up day is scheduled for May 6.

Randy Parks

Randy was born in Iowa, and spent most of his life growing up in the Hawkeye State. After a few years in college, he settled in Idaho for a decade, skiing, golfing, and working at Sun Valley Resort. He married in 1985, completed broadcast school, and moved to Harney County in 1989 to work for KZZR. After 16 years of on-air work, he left the radio station and went to work for the Burns Times-Herald.

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