After the Deluge

Since the Flood of 93, Chesterfield boosters have used millions in public money to raise a levee and turn the bottomlands into a boomtown. But betting against the river is risky business.

Doster, a former Chesterfield municipal judge, represents major developers in Chesterfield, including THF Realty (developer of Chesterfield Commons) and the Old Smoke House Investment Group (developer of Chesterfield Grove).

For those who have profited, the transformation of the valley is an exemplary model of public and private partnership, but these same economic visionaries have paid little attention to the potential long-term dangers of building in the floodplain. The levee-raising, a prerequisite to the economic boom, has drawn a chorus of protests from other agencies.

"We need to use the free-market system down there rather than government subsidies," says former Chesterfield Councilman Allan Sheppard.
Jennifer Silverberg
"We need to use the free-market system down there rather than government subsidies," says former Chesterfield Councilman Allan Sheppard.

Government officials fault the project as shortsighted at best. In a worst-case scenario, they say, it could lead to a catastrophe. At least three agencies have voiced concerns about the Corps' recommendation to raise the levee to more than 500-year levels of protection. They generally agree that the levee is sufficient at its current height, which protects against a so-called 100-year flood event. Flood-protection levels are based on theoretical estimates. A 500-year levee is projected to have a 1-in-500 chance of being topped in any given year, whereas a 100-year levee's odds are estimated to be one in 100.

"Obviously when a levee is built like that and certified per the Corps' standards, there's a false sense of security that people living behind the levee are protected," says Bob Bissell, chief of the mitigation division with FEMA in Kansas City. "However, as you saw in '93, that security literally washed away, and there was a lot of damage behind the levee. So even though our regulations allow that kind of development, we don't really support it.

"We support a more conservative flood-mitigation effort, which would be to simply not build there."

Col. Michael Morrow, the Corps' district engineer for the St. Louis region, isn't focused on the big picture. Instead, his concerns are limited to the letter of the law. "Anybody can build anything they want, as long as it's not in an area that we control such as a wetland," Morrow says. When asked whether he feels it is prudent to develop an area that floods, the colonel demurs: "I think you're raising a question that's a lot larger and above our pay grades."

The state of Missouri doesn't buy Morrow's explanation. In a letter to Morrow dated Sept. 18, Stephen Mahfood, the director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR), charged the Corps with circumventing the federal regulatory process and asserted that the Corps published its feasibility report and environmental impact statement after the levee district "completed construction of a substantial portion" of the levee. "As a result, this National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document is being accomplished after the fact, rather than in advance of a proposed project, as is customary." The DNR director complained that "the requisite "no action' alternative is, in this circumstance, rendered somewhat meaningless," because the levee district intends to build the levee with or without federal authorization. "If the ... levee is going to be developed regardless of the Corps' involvement, then it should be built as a cost to the beneficiaries, not to the public," according to Mahfood.

"I understand the state's position," says Morrow. "But if there's no federal project, it's Congress that really makes the final decision. The question is, if they can afford it, why go federal? I guess that depends. Congress is the one that authorized us to look at this, to do the initial study, to do the feasibility study. And, again, Congress answers to their constituents. The question of whether or not they can afford it, I don't know." Morrow says that the larger issues of watershed management have not been addressed by Congress, either.

The DNR letter from Mahfood warns that raising the levee will not only spur development of the floodplain but also inevitably cause flooding elsewhere. "The DNR has direct property interests in the area directly across the river in St. Charles County in the form of the Katy Trail State Park," Mahfood wrote. "We recommend that additional work and study be accomplished before finalization of this environmental impact statement in order to more precisely delineate the extent of induced flooding that will result."

In an interview, Mahfood expands on the DNR's position: "We feel like there will be additional flooding to the Katy Trail. How much? That's what we don't know. We want it analyzed. We feel like you need some answers to some of these questions before you can make decisions about not just this levee but any levee. Using good floodplain management makes everybody sit down and recognize that the river is a system and that it's not just water flowing past a certain point. We know that flood-control projects like this usually reduce the frequency of flood damage but not the inevitability of it. That's the thing that worries me: People think these levees are going to protect them in all circumstances, and that's just not the truth."

Rick Hansen of Columbia, Mo., an agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, compares the Corps' operations to that of the state highway department. "You build highways, and people will come and they will develop the area," he says. "If you channelize the river, if you build levees, if you repair levees, if you continue to make floodplains accessible for development, people will come. This isn't just the Monarch-Chesterfield. Many projects that the Corps of Engineers has done on the Missouri River have encouraged people to encroach on the floodplain. We feel the real problem with the Corps is they never evaluate cumulatively what they do in all of their projects. To me, they all kind of tie together."

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