Local federal lawmakers are pushing a bill calling for streamlining the Corps of Engineers' approval process, which has delayed upgrades planned for the levees on the Mississippi River.
U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, and U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, have introduced legislation in the U.S. House calling to give local entities a greater ability to plan and execute levee improvements, which has been critical considering current limits to the federal budget.
Both metro-east congressmen agree that the Corps' role in overseeing this process is vital, however it should proceed more quickly and unlock the potential for faster, district-centric project approvals by the Corps as the process to make repairs to the levees to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency's requirements by 2015.
In the metro-east, this could help proceed with $150 million in repairs and upgrades planned along the 70 miles of metro-east flood protection levees. However, regulatory barriers have been impeding progress and are preventing capital investments in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties because businesses that create jobs.
"Given the lack of resources at the federal level, it is imperative that local governments take the lead in making levee improvements, and we must empower them to take on this work," Costello said in a statement.
"I know both sides have the public's interest at heart," Shimkus said. "Yet every time we think the paths are merging, they end up farther apart. This legislation allows us to give specific guidance to the Corps in how to handle situations with local entities leading a project instead of them."
Mike Peterson, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis, said the Corps cannot comment on any proposed legislation. But Peterson said that the Corps' 33 USC Section 408 approval process for levee and other improvements that the bill is seeking to streamline is a mandated law required for any modification to any federal project and the Corps has always been ready with submitted proposals.
"It's understandable that everyone's concern about getting this project done," Peterson said. "That includes the leadership from the Corps and the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District. We all want the project to move forward and that it is not being bogged down or being delayed. I can't speak to that. We have delivered on time every time on the 408 process."
As the executive director of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, Ellen Krohne said she is pleased to see the new bill introduced. The council, which is a member-based economic development organization that serves St. Clair and Madison counties, has been involved with this issue and helped launch the St. Louis Metro-East Levee Issues Alliance in 2010 to support levee repairs.
"We're very happy about the introduction of the bill," Krohne said. "We're encouraged that this will move forward quickly. Anything we can do to expedite the process with the Corps will help us to complete the levee project by 2015, when FEMA comes to accredit the levees along the American Bottoms. This bill allows us to have an expedited process."
Les Sterman, Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District's chief supervisor of construction, said the bill formalizes the review process and establishes firm deadlines for those reviews.
"This will allow project sponsors like the Flood Prevention District to plan ahead with greater certainty and move far more quickly to protect public safety and the local economy," Sterman said in a released statement. "We thank Congressmen Costello and Shimkus for recognizing this problem and taking action for fix it."
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Friday asked the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to include legislative language in a new Water Resources Development Act bill to streamline the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Section 408 approval process for communities making improvements to flood control infrastructure. Durbin said this change will recognize that communities willing to raise the funds to make repairs should be able to obtain necessary permits in a timely manner.
"Communities in the metro-east Illinois region have been working to improve their levee system since it was decertified by FEMA in 2007," Durbin said in a statement. "Local residents raised money to make repairs to the system and are working with engineers on ways to fortify the levees, but local leaders have faced hurdles from the Army Corps of Engineers, specifically with regard to obtaining a Section 408 permit for the project. I encourage you to include legislation to allow the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works to streamline the process for communities making improvements to flood control infrastructure."
Contact reporter Will Buss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2526.