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

Gaining the current level of protection didn't happen without political pull. It took an act of Congress to override FEMA rules to finally obtain 20-year flood-protection status for the area. That occurred in 1996, after the devastating flood of 1993, when U.S. Rep. Jim Talent (R-2nd) attached a rider to other legislation. The Corps has used the intervening years to do a feasibility study that shows the Illinois side would not be affected by modest improvements to the levee systems on the Missouri River in St. Charles County. But failure to share these findings with Illinoisans has led to the current flap.

Despite the easing of restrictions, FEMA guidelines still prohibit more than 18 percent of any land tract in the St. Charles floodplain from being raised above the 100-year level. Federal officials assume that this will adequately protect the area from unwanted commercial development. "Nobody knows what the future will bring," says Dennis Woodruff, the Corps' project manager for the St. Charles levee project. "But there is no plan within the federal government to raise (the levee) any higher than 20 years, (and) our plan does not include any work on the Mississippi leg at all."

These reassurances have not quelled the worries over in Illinois, though. U.S. Reps. John Shimkus (R-20th) and Jerry Costello (D-12th) have both asked the Corps to clarify its position. The congressmen's requests were prompted by the concerns of local elected officials in Grafton and Alton, as well as the 650-member River Bend Growth Association, the area's chamber of commerce.

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."

One of the most vocal opponents of the project has been Wayne Freeman of the Great Rivers Land Trust in Godfrey, Ill. Freeman, a longtime environmental activist, believes the levee-raising will be the first in a series of incremental steps leading to the development of the floodplain in St. Charles County. Once federal subsidization of the local levee district begins, commercial and industrial encroachment will occur -- followed by inflated land prices, he says. Because commercial and industrial properties are more highly valued than agricultural land, they are deemed more worthy of flood protection, according to the federal cost-benefit-ratio formula. The system, he says, is a self-perpetuating means of promoting urban sprawl.

"It draws development into the floodplain," Freeman says. "Once a flood tops that 20-year levee -- it could happen next year, or it could happen 10 years from now -- the call will be to raise the levee, because it becomes much easier once you have federal support."

The environmentalist points upstream to the situation in Chesterfield as an example. After the 1993 flood breached the Monarch Levee on the Missouri River, federal money financed its rebuilding to a 1,000-year level, which has subsequently led to rampant commercial development of that floodplain.

The problem with this shortsighted solution is that restriction of the natural flow of the river in one place inevitably causes increased flooding somewhere else. But that is, after all, what helps keep the Corps in business. Freeman calls it "voodoo engineering." The St. Charles County floodplain, a 94-square-mile area, is capable of soaking up 39 billion cubic feet of water. Had the L-15 levee been built at the 100-year level, as was planned earlier, it could have had catastrophic consequences. "One can only surmise what would have happened to the floodwall in St. Louis or the East St. Louis levee, where the river becomes the narrowest in the entire upper Mississippi River basin. You'd think we'd have learned our lesson by this point," he says. "We've fought this battle twice before. Does anybody care?"

The current levee plan has also garnered concern from a more unlikely source -- the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The state agency owns 3.5 miles of abandoned railroad embankment that is part of the levee system, which the Corps has slated to improve. The railroad right of way, acquired by the state in 1986 under the federal Rails to Trails Act, is part of the DNR's acclaimed Katy Trail. So far, 185 miles of the trail have been completed. The final 12-mile stretch, between the city of St. Charles and the small town of Machens, in northern St. Charles County, was scheduled to be constructed this year. But those plans are now on hold, says Jim Crabtree, an assistant director for the Missouri Division of State Parks.

The sticking point is that the Corps does not acknowledge in its draft report that DNR owns the levee. Moreover, the Corps' levee design and the DNR's trail plan aren't in sync. According to the Corps' plan, about 40,000 cubic yards of gravel will be removed from the embankment and replaced with clay, says Crabtree. Removing the gravel, called railroad ballast, will make the embankment less porous, thereby increasing its ability to repel floodwaters, but it would also eliminate an essential design component of the trail. "That is the Katy Trail," says Crabtree. "We definitely need to not have that happen."

Crabtree says he first heard about the Corps' plan when he read about it in a newspaper. After perusing the Corps' report on the subject, he became concerned and dispatched staff members to attend a public forum held last month. The state official recently sent a letter to the Corps asking for clarification.

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