Voodoo Engineering

New plans for a levee in St. Charles County raise concerns about flooding in Illinois and the completion of Missouri's popular Katy Trail

When Grafton, Ill., Mayor Bobbie Amburg married her husband 16 years ago, he assured her that his house, at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, was built high enough to withstand any deluge. "Of course, that was wrong, because in '93 we had 64 inches of water in our basement -- which is above ground," Amburg says.

Amburg remembers watching her neighbors use boats to salvage their refrigerators and stoves from the high waters. An aerial photograph, hanging on the wall at Grafton City Hall, reminds her of the flood's devastation. The picture shows the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers merging to form an inland sea. Amburg uses the photo to illustrate her opposition to a planned levee over in St. Charles County, Mo. Amburg says she heard about the project not through official channels but informally through acquaintances who are environmentalists.

"It bothers me that nobody bothered to inform the people on the Illinois side of the river that this was going on," she says. Amburg is not the only one who is upset. Other Illinois elected officials, business owners and environmentalists are calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to re-examine its plan. The Corps has responded to the complaints by saying that Illinoisans weren't initially told about the levee's raising because they won't be affected by it.

Grafton, Ill., Mayor Bobbie Amburg: "It bothers me that nobody bothered to inform the people on the Illinois side of the river that this was going on."
C.D. Stelzer
Grafton, Ill., Mayor Bobbie Amburg: "It bothers me that nobody bothered to inform the people on the Illinois side of the river that this was going on."

The pending levee improvements are predicated on the Flood Control Act of 1944, which has sanctioned billions of dollars in flood-control projects on inland waterways since becoming law. Originally the L-15 levee plan, as it is known, called for the protection of the 30,000 acres in eastern St. Charles County that lies between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. But efforts to authorize the project in the 1970s and 1980s failed to pass a cost-benefit analysis required by Congress. The earlier proposals also stirred the ire of Illinois residents and environmentalists, who opposed the project because it would have redirected the water from the St. Charles floodplain to communities on the east side of the Mississippi River.

There is a difference in the Corps' latest plan, however. Whereas past L-15 proposals have sought to raise the levee system to 100-year flood-protection levels, the current design would only guard against a 20-year flood. The 100-year standard is typically used to guard commercial or industrial development, whereas the 20-year level provides less protection to agricultural land. Moreover, the plan that is now on the drawing board would only extend for 24 miles along the Missouri River, from just east of the Highway 370 bridge to about 2.5 miles from the Missouri's confluence with the Mississippi River. The more problematic 10-mile stretch along the Mississippi to Portage Des Sioux has been removed from the current plan.

The federal government would pay for 75 percent of the $7.5 million project, with the local levee district picking up the rest of the tab. The Corps plan would essentially bring a hodgepodge of levees up to federal standards, providing a modicum of protection to farmland that is more often threatened by floodwaters from the Missouri River than by those from the Mississippi. Farmers who work here are both the benefactors and the victims of periodic deluges, which over time have deposited a deep, rich sediment across the alluvial plain. To take maximum advantage of these soil conditions, settlers in the 19th century built berms as close to the riverbanks as possible. The current Corps plan would raise these existing farm levees an average of 1.6 feet to bring them up to 20-year flood-protection standards. If the Corps raised the levee system any higher, the farmers, who belong to the Consolidated North County Levee District, would be ineligible for federal flood insurance.

In the past, the prospect of better flood protection spurred two industries in the affected area -- McDonnell Douglas Corp. (now Boeing) and Union Electric (now AmerenUE) -- to financially back the local levee district's efforts to improve the levee system. Those attempts failed, however, because Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulations adopted by St. Charles County more than 20 years ago created floodways that prevented new construction near the river.

As a result of the FEMA guidelines, building a new flood-protection system at the 100-year level would require moving the levees back from the river, which would in turn decrease the amount of tillable soil. To date, the amount of agricultural land that would have to be given up for a 100-year levee system has kept such a project from being carried out. In short, it would be more expensive to build than it would be worth, according to the federal cost-benefit formula.

Missouri Sen. Steve Ehlmann (R-23rd) a former attorney for the levee district, says the 20-year plan would help Illinoisans, too. "I don't understand why the people of Illinois are concerned, because that Missouri River levee actually keeps the water from going across the county over into the Mississippi River," he says. "The whole concept of an industrial levee down there has been dead for a long time," Ehlmann adds. "That area down there is going to be flooded. What the people down there say is, "We can make a living (farming) -- if we're only flooded every 20 years.'"

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