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Mitigating flood risk for small town economic and community development

Paxico, Kansas

Featured image for the project, Mitigating flood risk for small town economic and community development

The shops in downtown Paxico, KS. Photo courtesy of Greg Dekat

Paxico is a rural small town with just over 200 residents. The majority of the town lies in a high flood risk zone, which has experienced limited economic development for over a generation. Local watershed districts and community leaders have consulted an engineering firm to reduce the risk of flooding, but proposed solutions are cost-prohibitive for this small community. A scientist with expertise in flood risk management, stormwater runoff, federal flood risk programs, and rural community development is needed to help Paxico identify affordable flood risk mitigation strategies, so that the town can pursue new economic development opportunities.


The Community and the Challenge

Paxico was founded in 1886 as a railroad town, strategically situated along Mill Creek to sustain agricultural and municipal water needs. Unfortunately, that proximity to Mill Creek also contributes to the risk of severe floods, the most recent of which occurred in 1961. The US FEMA and Kansas Dept of Agriculture’s flood risk assessments concluded that the majority of Paxico resides in a high flood risk area (see image below), which contributes to high flood insurance rates and restricts much-needed infrastructure repairs, building projects, and development. In the words of one Paxico resident, “It’s not a flood that will take down Paxico, it’s the flood risk.” Paxico’s location along I-70, between Topeka and Manhattan (home of Kansas State University), Kansas, makes the town ripe for economic opportunities – but only if the flood risk can be effectively and affordably reduced.

FEMA flood plain assessment map

FEMA flood plain assessment map. Paxico outlined in yellow. Blue indicates “Zone A” flood risk.

After the major flood of 1961, citizens installed levies and channels to divert water away from the town. Despite these efforts, the town is still situated within a flood zone – in fact, levees installed south of town now actively retain stormwater within the town. The local Watershed District (Mill Creek, #85) is working on strategies to divert water away from the town, and community leaders are working with engineers on infrastructural solutions. Unfortunately, proposed flood mitigation strategies are very cost-intensive, which is prohibitive for a small town like Paxico that receives very little municipal revenue. In addition, agriculture landowners surrounding the town are resistant to land-use changes that would mitigate flood risks, generally due to a lack of trust in government intervention. An environmental science perspective is needed to help devise affordable and effective flood mitigation strategies. If Paxico can divert potential floodwaters away from the town, it can reduce its FEMA flood risk severity and pursue further development for economic growth.


The Project

Paxico community leaders would like help identifying affordable and effective flood risk mitigation strategies so that they can reduce the risk of flooding. By doing so, they can change the flood risk assessment by FEMA, which will allow for easier and more affordable development of buildings, roads, and other city infrastructure. The community is generally against solutions that require increased taxes, and the local watershed district has experienced barriers to flood risk mitigation by landowners in the area who are resistant to altering their landscape to mitigate flood risk. Scientists, architects, and engineers familiar with federal flood risk programs should explore tangible steps that Paxico can take to reduce its flood risk under the FEMA flood risk assessment.

Strategies should be explored within the local geographic context, and suitable options, including their associated costs and efficacy, will be presented to community leaders (e.g., city council), local organizations (e.g., Mill Creek Watershed District), and residents, so that the community can collectively decide on the appropriate measures to be taken. One city employee in charge of addressing the flood risk, as well as a new Economic Development Director for the county, the local Mill Creek Watershed District, and an existing coalition of passionate Paxico residents will serve as partners to help scientists understand local geographic knowledge, political and historical context, and available resources for assessing the feasibility of flood risk mitigation solutions. Empowering Paxico with knowledge about the range of available flood risk mitigation solutions will be critical to the community’s ability to improve their infrastructure, economic opportunities, and quality of life.


Timeline and Milestones

  • We hope to be able to present a number of risk mitigation options to the community during the summer.
  • Regular updates to the local watershed district, economic development director, and community leaders should occur throughout the project.
  • Relevant findings and proposed solutions should be presented to the community through a verbal remote presentation, press releases in the local newspaper, and an interactive map or “pop-up” to be displayed downtown.
  • Acquisition of funding through grant proposals and meetings will occur towards the end of the project, after solutions and their associated costs have been identified.



Project Team

Community Leads

Ryan Theel (Paxico Utilities Supervisor)

Jim MacGregor (Wabaunsee County Economic Development Director)


Community Scientists

Dr. Kate Nelson, [email protected], Kansas State University, Dept. of Geography and Geospatial Sciences. Dr. Nelson’s core areas of geographic research are in human-environment interactions and geospatial analysis and application. Her work addresses the impacts of planning and policy on the sustainability of socio-environmental systems by examining the effects of policies on hazard impacts, evaluating adaptation strategies, and developing decision support tools to help reduce vulnerability and increase resilience. She frequently employs geospatial programming and analysis methods on large spatiotemporal datasets that integrate social and physical data. She holds BS, MS, and PhD degrees in Environmental Engineering from the University of Oklahoma, Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), and Vanderbilt University, respectively.


Dr. Tim Keane, [email protected], Kansas State University, Dept. of Landscape Architecture and Regional and Community Planning. Tim Keane has served at Kansas State University since 1984, teaching in landscape architecture and in the APDesign interdisciplinary Ph.D. Program. Keane has received multiple teaching awards, three Jarvis Endowed Chair positions, the 2009 USDA-CSREES Partnership Award for Mission Integration, the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture’s (CELA) “Excellence in Research and/or Creative Work Award, the KSU Professorial Performance Award, and was the college’s first member to be awarded “Distinguished Graduate Faculty” status at Kansas State University. Dr. Keane’s research deals with stream morphology and process, as well as urban stormwater management. He has more than twenty peer-reviewed publications. He also has developed a series of natural systems and fluvial systems courses that provide a depth and breadth of material unusual to landscape architecture programs. He holds a BS in landscape architecture from Iowa State University, and a MS and PhD in landscape architecture from the University of Michigan.


Brock Emmert, [email protected], Watershed Institute and Land Trust. Brock is a fluvial geomorphologist with the Watershed Institute, Inc., a Kansas not-for-profit-corporation. He holds a BA in geography and geology from the University of Northern Iowa, and a MS in geography from Kansas State University. Upon graduation at Kansas State, Mr. Emmert led a stream survey crew for 6-years documenting the dimension, pattern, and profile of Kansas streams. Since 2004, Mr. Emmert has worked for the Watershed Institute, Inc., serving as  project manager for the survey, design, permitting, construction staking and oversight of streambank stabilization, natural channel design, riparian buffer restoration, and stream and wetland mitigation projects.  His environmental experience includes wetland delineation determinations, endangered species habitat assessments, monitoring, environmental screening investigations, and site assessments.


Community Science Fellow

Garrett Boudinot completed his PhD in Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder on the ecological impacts of climate change after receiving his Bachelors in both geology and religious studies at the College of Charleston. Currently a Research Associate at Cornell University and Community Science Fellow with the Thriving Earth Exchange, Garrett works on agricultural solutions to climate change, natural resources management, and community resilience. He also performs science outreach and communications on climate change and climate solutions, including as a Science Advisor for the ClimateMusic Project. He works on several science policy projects covering environmental quality, agriculture, natural resources, water, transportation, and energy policy. He also likes gardening, playing music, fishing, hunting, and hiking.

Collaborating Organization(s)

Paxico city council and mayor

Mill Creek Watershed District

Paxico Community Foundation

Paxico and Beyond Community and Economic Development Organization


Topeka newspaper article about Paxico: “How the rural Kansas town of Paxico is looking to address its nitrate-riddenwater and floodplain issues” Download