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.

A hydrology analysis prepared by the Corps in 1995 said a new 500-year levee in Chesterfield would raise flood levels by 3.4 feet upstream from the Highway 40 bridge. Under FEMA regulations, projected increases of more than a foot require that all development along the river cease. Using newer hydrological data gathered since the 1993 flood, the Corps came up with a more favorable estimate that placed the increase at only 0.8 feet. But with knowledge of the entire watershed still incomplete, the overall projections remain as unclear as the waters of the Missouri River.

Meanwhile, the Wildlife Service is adamant in its assertion that the levee will compound the flooding problems on the lower Missouri River. In its response to the Corps draft feasibility report, the agency summarizes the dangerous buildup that is taking place:

"There are already 500-year levees protecting the Riverport and Earth City areas downstream of the proposed project. The Howard Bend Levee District, immediately downstream, is also proposing a 500-year protection levee. We understand that the city of Hazelwood is investigating a 500-year protection levee on the downstream side of the Highway 370 bridge.... There is a potential that upwards of 25 miles of floodplain land may be protected in St. Louis County alone. Coupled with the construction of Page Avenue (bridge), the various floodplain projects likely would contribute to a serious bottleneck in flood flow conveyance in this portion of the Missouri River floodplain. The combined effects of these projects will increase flood elevations, decrease flood storage capacity and adversely impact riparian and aquatic habitats through the continued escalation of structural measures to repair or mitigate the effects of more frequent, higher energy and more destructive flood events."

"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.

In other words, the development of floodplains in St. Louis County is responsible for the loss of wildlife habitat and will inevitably cause flooding elsewhere.

The same warnings have been sounded before but not heeded. In the wake of the 1993 flood, the Clinton administration formed an interagency committee to study the disaster. Brig. Gen. Gerald E. Galloway, a retired Corps officer, headed the group, which included officials from numerous government agencies. Their work culminated in the publication of a five-volume report in June 1994. The study found that "activities in the floodplain, even with levee protection, continue to remain at risk." Perhaps more important, the report concludes that levees themselves "can cause problems in some critical reaches by backing water up on the other levees or lowlands."

Although the Galloway Report, as it came to be known, refrained from calling for a total ban on floodplain development, it did suggest that flood protection be approached more systemically. The Corps, however, has chosen to take the opposite tack.

After the 1993 flood disaster, the Corps' Kansas City headquarters placed a moratorium on floodplain developments, strictly prohibiting any construction without an environmental assessment. But after the Corps' St. Louis office assumed jurisdiction over the lower Missouri River in 1995, the agency reversed its position. By no small coincidence, U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, whose district includes Chesterfield, has lobbied hard for the Corps to recommend the federal financing of the levee-raising. Talent, a Chesterfield resident and consistent booster of development in the valley, has received ample campaign contributions from Chesterfield businessmen, including support for his failed 2000 gubernatorial bid. (During Talent's Congressional run in 1998, he got $9,000 from Thom Sehnert, who owns the Smoke House Market and Annie Gunn's restaurant in the valley and is a partner in the development of Chesterfield Grove.)

Once the Corps lifted the ban on building in the floodplain, the construction craze began. The Galloway Report specifically warned against such "uncoordinated and conflicting" rules, which, the report said, "have hindered efficient floodplain management." It also predicted that events such as the 1993 flood will reoccur, mainly because of encroachment on the floodplain by human activities.

Despite this knowledge, the Corps has continued to approve private levee-raisings. Ironically, the private flood-protection structures that the Corps permits often don't even meet its engineering standards. Take, for example, the improvements made to Bonhomme Creek, which received more than $1.6 million in TIF funds.

When the Missouri River floods, it backs up the small tributary, making the creek the most significant threat to interior flooding in the entire Chesterfield Valley. Not surprisingly, upgrading flood protection on the creek became a major component of Chesterfield's development plans. The levee district purchased 50,000 tons of rock from the Fred Weber quarry near Bridgeton to shore up the creek, which benefits the investors in the $20 million Chesterfield Grove project, including Sehnert.

But there was one hitch with the Bonhomme Creek project: Rip-rap used by the levee district to shore up the creek banks is considered substandard by Corps' guidelines. Some of the boulders weighed as much as 600 pounds. Within a few years, a Corps-led inspection revealed that the stones were already breaking into pieces as small as 1 inch. The levee district's engineer admitted that substandard material had been used but defended the action, saying the district had acquired larger rocks to compensate for the expected deterioration. Despite these findings, the Corps concluded that it would be too expensive to replace the rock. The Corps then routinely approved the credit application submitted by the levee district, which will likely result in the federal government's paying up to 65 percent -- more than $1 million -- for the Bonhomme Creek project.

« Previous Page
Next Page »