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

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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.

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.'"

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.

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.

The Corps claims that no communication problem has existed between the two agencies. "The Missouri DNR was notified, as were all the proper state and local authorities," says Charles Camillo, a spokesman for the Corps. "The project will not affect in any way the development of the Katy Trail," he adds. As for the Corps' intention to remove the 40,000 cubic yards of gravel from the embankment, Camillo says, the DNR "can still put the ballast back on top." The Corps spokes-man refused to hazard a guess as to whether this would add to the price of the project or who would pay for it.

Asked how the Corps could have moved forward on the levee project without first consulting with the state about the matter, Crabtree says: " I don't know. It's pretty sad. Somewhere along the line, communications fell apart. We've been working very closely with the Consolidated North County Levee District and with the Corps of Engineers since the flood of '93. So it's a little perplexing to me that another branch of the Corps wouldn't acknowledge our ownership."

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