Metro East officials say Corps of Engineers could impede levee upgrade project
SEPTEMBER 14, 2013 12:45 PM • BY PAUL HAMPEL PHAMPEL@POST-DISPATCH.COM 314-340-8104
METRO EAST • Officials here who are scrambling to upgrade their levee system to appease one federal agency say that another federal department is looming as an obstacle. The leaders, drawing from a pool of $175 million in revenue from a special sales tax imposed in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties, have begun taking bids for the repair and modernization of 74 miles of levees that protect the region. They hope to complete the work by the end of 2015 to head off a threat by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to de-accredit the levees and issue maps that would designate much of the area as at high risk of flooding.
Such a move would trigger expensive insurance requirements for the region’s 156,000 residents and 7,000 businesses and could limit development there. But the same sense of urgency that local officials are bringing to the project has not extended to a small stretch of the levee near the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, just south of Alton. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for upgrading that 8,000-foot segment because its construction of the dam exacerbated a problem of underseepage, water that finds its way under and behind the levees and can cause their failure. It would cost about $45 million to repair the section, the corps said.
Corps officials, citing budget constraints and a separate mandate for overhauling the entire levee system, have declined to set a deadline for improving the levee near the dam; work on that section is still in the early design stages. “We understand their (county officials) impetus and sense of urgency and want to be good partners with them,” Deanne Strauser, the corps’ project development chief for the region, said this week. “But our authorization is reducing risk and making sure the entire levee system operates as it was intended to operate.” She said the corps was working long-term to upgrade the levee to a 500-year flood level, even if that takes longer than to update it to the 100-year level that serves as a rate baseline for insurance companies, as Metro East officials are trying to do by the end of 2015.
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That approach has irked some Metro East officials. “If the corps fails to meet the timeline we have set for this project, that would be a travesty,” St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said this week. “It is beyond me why they won’t get to work and fix the problem that they caused.” Les Sterman, construction chief of the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council, said problems in the levee near the dam could imperil FEMA accreditation of the whole system. “This is a weakest-link-in-the-chain problem,” Sterman said. “If we fix our portion but theirs still has a chronic seepage problem, I’m afraid that will cause a problem in getting the system certified and accredited by FEMA.” The levees were built with federal funding in the 1940s and ’50s to protect against a 500-year flood. The system protects the American Bottom, a flood plain that includes all or parts of numerous communities including Alton, Cahokia, Centreville, East Alton, East St. Louis, Granite City, Hartford, Roxana, Sauget and Wood River. The levees have never failed, but underseepage problems throughout the system prompted FEMA to declare in 2007 that it did not have confidence that the levees would protect against a 100-year flood, one for which there is a 1 percent chance in any given year. Failure to secure FEMA accreditation for the levees would lead banks and other lenders to require residents and businesses to purchase expensive flood insurance. Faced with that consequence, officials in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties banded together to establish the flood prevention district and levy the quarter-cent sales tax to finance repairs. Tax collection began in January 2009.
Meanwhile, corps officials say they have already spent $275 million in federal funds over the last 20 years to upgrade the system. “The majority of that money has gone toward everything that is above ground,” corps spokesman Mike Petersen said. He cited renovation on about 25 pump stations, construction of a new pump station on the Chain of Rocks canal, and work on relief wells and gravity drains.
The preliminary federal budget for next year includes $34 million for corps levee projects in the area. The funds are allocated for projects in the East St. Louis and Wood River areas. Sterman, with the flood prevention district, suggests that the corps rethink its cash allocations. “Really, they ought to rework their priority to put that money into this project,” he said. But Petersen said budget rules prohibited such action. “We can’t move dollars anywhere we want. That money was appropriated specifically for East St. Louis and Wood River at this time,” he said.
FEMA had initially projected that it would publish new flood maps by 2012. However, the process was delayed in the wake of requests by congress that FEMA refine its accreditation approach. “In the past, we have had a situation where we would look at levees as either accredited or not,” said Eric Kuklewski, a risk analysis specialist with FEMA based in Chicago. “Because many stakeholders were concerned with that all-or-nothing approach, we developed new procedures.” Kuklewski said that, in some circumstances, FEMA maps might note that deficient levees still provided some level of protection. However, he would not comment on how levee problems near the Mel Price Locks and Dam might affect accreditation for the entire Metro East system. “You really can’t make that judgment until after you’ve gotten all the data and run a scenario,” he said. “And while it’s true that the lending industry uses (flood maps) to make decisions on insurance, that’s not our motivation. The purpose for our mapping is to identify the risks that these folks are under so they can be prepared to take some mitigation action in the event of a disaster.”