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Great Lakes Article:

The costs of preventing flood damage
By Tom Weber
Great Lakes Radio Consortium
Published September 18, 2006

It's been 13 years since the Great Flood of '93 caused widespread destruction along the upper Mississippi Rivers. After the flood, there was talk of needing to expand the natural flood plain by eliminating levees that protect farmland. That didn't happen. In fact, not much of anything has happened, but that doesn't stop farmers from wondering if the government will buy their farms and turn them into natural areas designed to take the waters of the next big flood. Tom Weber reports:

For all the river talk in these parts, it's actually kind of hard to see the water. Doug Sondag's farm is about about two miles from the river and his view to the west is of the bluffs, on which Missouri towns, like Herculanium, sit.

"That's Missouri bluffs. That's Missouri bluffs, and to the north the bluffs that you see is Missouri. We're on a big bend here."

Doug's friend Ron Kuergeleis is visiting the farm today. Kuergeleis lost his home in the '93 flood, but he still farms on the flood plain near Valmeyer, Illinois. The two also are commissioners with the local levee district, which means they're in charge of keeping the local levee up-to-date so the river is kept away.

Today, though, they're talking about the possibility of a new federal levee and something called "Plan G."

(Ron): "You're talking quite a few farmers that would absolutely put them out of business. You're one of them, I'm one of them, and there's - (Doug): "There are quite a few more." (Ron): "There are quite a few more."

No one is going out of business any time soon, though. Plan G is something the Army Corps of Engineers studied and decided wasn't worth the money. It would have the Corps spend billions building up bigger levees along the upper Mississippi to 500-year levees: the highest levees the Corps builds.

Plan G also would create a huge storage district nearby. A storage district is a kind of relief area where flood waters go to take strain off other levees. Corps engineer Richard Astrack says design elements like these can help control flooding in other places:

"Now we have the capability that we didn't have before to look at whole system to ensure that actions taken at one location can impact another location."

The Valmeyer storage district would require a new levee in the flood plain, which would leave 10,000 acres of currently protected farmland unprotected and on the wrong side of the levee.

This all started a few years ago, when Congress told the Corps to study the entire Upper Mississippi River, from Illinois's southern tip to Minnesota, find out if the current levees are good enough to reduce flood damage. If not, should there be some comprehensive plan to guide just which levees get built up and when? Such a study actually had never been done.

The Corps' Richard Astrack says they looked at a lot of options, including that Plan G, to see if any of them were worth the time and money. And it turns out, none of them is:

"None of the plans passed that test. Our draft report does not recommend any systemic plan."

And the Corps's final report will probably recommend essentially doing nothing because the current system does a good enough job of preventing flood damage. The Corps will recommend updating, but not raising, current aging levees, and also creating some mini- levees to protect roads that approach bridges.

But even with all the assurances that Valmeyer, Illinois is safe for now, farmers in the bottomlands are worried that the federal government might one day force their children or their grandchildren off their farms.

Ron Kuergeleis is a fourth generation farmer:

"We're pretty much assured in our lifetime it ain't gonna happen. But some of us got another generation coming up and you don't know. He claims, you know where you going to come up with money, but if they want to come up with it, they'll find it."

The worries stem from the fact that Corps cannot, in all fairness, guarantee that such a levee would never be built. Because setting aside some of the bottom lands for natural flooding could protect big cities such as St. Louis, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee, there's concern that Congress might one day instruct the Corps of Engineers to buy out those farms.

So, while Valmeyer is not getting a new levee right now, the people here say they’ll keep working to stay one step ahead to make sure it never happens.

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