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,
"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
(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.