Flood protection: Failing levees would mean 'incalculable' economic loss

News-DemocratAugust 27, 2013 

Six years after federal officials said they did not have faith in the metro-east levee system, construction will soon begin to buoy the area's defense against floods.

The Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council expects construction work to begin at the end of September on $150 million of current and future levee improvements, according to the group's Chief Supervisor Les Sterman. Flood protection of the metro-east falls upon five levees stretching 85 miles along the Mississippi River.

The economic losses of the levees failing to be accredited by the federal government is "almost incalculable," Sterman said.

"Flood insurance premiums alone for businesses and homeowners would run an additional $50 million a year, which is a huge number," Sterman said. "I think in some ways the bigger impact would be on those who own property. In those areas, property values could go down 25 percent which could be hundreds of millions of dollars in lost value."

The Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council was formed in 2008 in response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stating the levee system could not protect the area against the strength of a so-called 100-year flood -- a flood with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any single year.

The levee system protects 174 square miles in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties. The protected area is home to more than 155,000 residents and businesses employing 55,000 people, according to the Council.

The Council aims to meet federal standards by the end of 2015. The sense of urgency stems from the high stakes economic effect in play, Sterman said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency used the Corps' assertion to issue maps proclaiming most of the metro-east as a flood hazard area with no protection from flooding. Following legal action from local governments and others, the agency agreed to revamp its mapping process but has not yet issued new maps for the metro-east.

"We've lost some of the margin for error because we have taken so long to get to this point," Sterman said. "We believe an appropriate deadline is 2015. I think if we slip too much beyond that we run the risk of serious economic issues."

Design work has been completed, all the necessary permits are expected to be issued by the end of this year, and the Council has already awarded contracts for two construction projects. However, the Council is worried the Corps will not have completed their work upon the most serious problem in the entire levee system by the end of 2015.

A critical stretch of a levee in Wood River near the Mel Price Lock and Dam needs about $40 million in improvements. Without those improvements, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will likely not accredit the levee system.

To push the project forward, the Council hopes the Corps will direct all available federal money to the project.

"(The Corps) is working on the design of that, but they don't have any construction money," Sterman said. "That piece will clearly not be done by 2015. We're pressing them very hard to make that happen."

Mary Markos with the Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis said the Corps is working with the Council to complete the project as quickly as possible.

"We are looking at every available option to expedite completion of design and construction of that portion of the levy," Markos said. "The Council has expressed concerns and we really are working with them for viable solutions to keep the project on track."

Two projects are hoped to begin in late September, Sterman said. The installation of a $748,000 pump station in the Fish Lake Levee District in Monroe County and $12.9 million of levee improvements in the Prairie Du Pont Levee District in southern St. Clair County and Monroe County.

"One of the popular misconceptions of fixing the levee systems is people think it's a question of building the levee higher or stronger in some way," Sterman said. "It's really not the issue for us. Our issue is underseepage. Water pressure from the Mississippi River during high water events drives water under the levee and brings up sand boils ultimately causing failures."

Pump stations in the two projects beginning in September and five more stations planned to be installed soon will help alleviate the problem, Sterman said.

The work is paid for through a quarter-cent sales tax begun in 2009 in the three counties, generating about $11 million annually. The Council collected more than $34.1 million in tax revenue between 2009 and 2012, and anticipates an additional $11.6 million collected in the current fiscal year.

The Council sold about $94.2 million in bonds in November 2010 to pay for the levee improvements.

St. Clair County Administrator Dan Maher, also the Council's board president, praised Sterman for his work and said "contracts will really be coming now at a much more accelerated rate."

"There's bids going out right now for the improvements," Maher told St. Clair County Board members on Monday. "Hopefully, we are going to be able to keep this thing on schedule but it's pretty successful right now in terms of where we are and the work that is being performed."

The St. Clair County Board accepted the Council's annual report on Monday, and will consider approving the Council's proposed budget during the next board meeting in September.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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