July 3, 2008 | by Thomas J. Finan, Publisher
by Tom Finan, Publisher
Yesterday I was going to try to ride my bike up the Riverfront Trail. I figured that the Mississippi had gone down enough. Well, no.
I reached the foot of Washington Avenue near the Arch and everything was under many feet of water. I cut through Laclede's Landing and behind the Lumiere
Casino to the entrance of the trail, which was dry. Riding along the
trail was really strange. The Mississippi was just a few feet away and
the flow was really boiling. It gave me a whole new respect for the job that we're asking our floodwall/levee system to handle... and raised a lot of concerns.
The whole levee situation is concerning, but one that is being addressed... finally. Last August, FEMA asked the Corps of Engineers if the Illinois and Missouri levees would fail in a 100-year-flood (which, since Global Warning have been happening about ever 15 years). The Corps said yes, indeed we could be up to our eyeballs in the Big Muddy.
This prompted some hand-wringing in Missouri, where the legislature had been holding levee improvements hostage and in the riverfront areas Illinois, where developers and builders feared that it would lose projects when developers couldn't get flood insurance. Three Illinois counties passed a quarter-cent sales sales tax and the City of St. Louis authorized bond dollars to fix the most immediate problems. In June, a levee conference — which drew levee officials from Illinois to California — was held here. During the conference the corps and local officials discussed what progress had been made.
The release of the St. Louis bond funds led to a May 13 award to A&H Contractors Inc., Detroit, of $1.7 million to add 70 relief wells and replace another 103 along an 11-mile stretch of the St. Louis Flood Protection Project. Although the contract is administered by the Corps, the funds come from a city bond issue and were made available by a special project partnership agreement.
The St. Louis flood-protection system has been in place for almost 50 years, and many elements are failing, Tamara Atchley, project manager for the district said. Under-seepage relief wells need to be replaced. Floodgates are rusty and deteriorating, gravity drains and valve flaps no longer work, and electrical components are wearing out in pump stations. Parts for the aging equipment often are no longer available.
The Illinois tax is dedicated to refurbishing non-federal levees in the Wood River, East St. Louis, Chain of Rocks, Prairie Dupont and Fish Lake Drainage & Leveedistricts. The combined 98 miles of levees protect about 323,000 people, 195,700 acres of land and billions of dollars in oil refineries and chemical plants.
“Until August last year, we didn’t know a whole lot about levees or think about them much,”Les Sterman, executive director of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments said. “We had a rude awakening when we were told our levee systems are inadequate, and that the area would be subject to increased flood risk.”
There was nothing magical that changed the level of risk facing the St. Louis Metro Area from levee failure: "That’s just when the public became aware of it, " Col. Lewis F. Setliff, III, commander of the St. Louis District Corps of Engineers said. “Managing flood risk is much bigger than any one group can do,” Setliff said. “We’re never going to fix these levees and get them repaired without everybody participating.”
Communication of risk is integral to rallying the public, politicians and local governments behind infrastructure improvements, Setliff says. It is also a key component in improving evacuation and emergency preparedness plans. In New Orleans, many people didn’t know the risk, says Brig. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, commander of the Mississippi River Division and president-designee of the Mississippi River Commission. “They assumed levees, pumps and floodwalls were all in place and would work.”