Flood-proof? Metro-east levees should be up to par by next year

News-DemocratMay 16, 2014 

Work to shore up the levee system that protects the metro-east is well underway, according to local leaders. It is expected to be completed before the end of 2015, a deadline set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after which residents could be hit in their pocketbooks by higher flood insurance premiums.

"Two years ago, I don't think the district was even sure that we would be able to come up with the money we needed to get the projects done," said Chuck Etwert, of the Southwestern Illinois Flood Protection District. "Now we have a budget surplus and the projects are well on their way to completion."

But work to get the levees up to the 500-year standard that local leaders and FEMA would like to see could take a while longer -- and local residents will have to come up with a lot more money.

About 74 miles of Mississippi River levees between Alton and Columbia lost their FEMA accreditation in 2007 because they didn't meet 100-year flood standards. In 2009, Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties passed a quarter-cent sales tax, bringing in about $11 million a year, to repair the levees. In 2012 repair work began.

Currently, six levee repair projects totaling $39 million are under construction. Another two projects estimated to cost $16 million are under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They're expected to be bid out late this year.

"Things are going well," said Bob Shipley, executive director of the Metro East Sanitation District. "Much better than we expected when we started this project. We expect to be where we need to be by the end of 2015."

The next step is to try to up the protection offered by local levees to the 500 year level, according to Tracy Kelsey of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"The goal is to get the levees up to the standard at which they were originally intended to be," Kelsey said.

To get to that 500-year standard, Kelsey said the levees need to be built up to handle a flood level of 54 feet in St. Louis. The flood of 1993 saw water levels reach about 43 feet at St. Louis.

A 100-year flood means that, statistically, there is a 1 percent chance of a flood of that magnitude occurring in a given year. A 500-year flood has a two-tenths of 1 percent chance of happening in a given year.

Kelsey said it would cost $133 million to shore up East St. Louis' levees to the 500-year standard, $50 million for Wood River's levee system and $30 million for Prairie DuPont's levees. About 65 percent of that total would be covered by the federal government and the rest would come from local matching money.

Shipley said things are going better than expected for the 100-year work. But the 500-year standards will have to wait a little bit.

"We're never going to give up on getting there," Shipley said about the 500-year levels. "But we're not going to raise taxes. Once we get to the 100-year standard, hopefully we can redirect that revenue to reaching the 500-year level."

National Weather Service hydrologist Mark Fuchs said, while he expects some flooding on the Mississippi in the area this summer, he doesn't expect it will be a major issue like last year.

"The Missouri River could come up significantly," Fuchs warned. "There is a better chance of flooding at St. Louis in June and July. But if you're worried about a repeat of last year, when we had 40 plus feet at the arch, I don't see that happening."

Fuchs said that, while the metro-east has had a moderate amount of rain, northwestern Illinois has been pretty dry causing the Illinois River to be relatively low. Above average rain expected this summer in the Missouri River Valley could drive the river up. But Fuchs said, because levels are low in Illinois, the Mississippi has the capacity to absorb the water.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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