Photo by Diane Cox
State Rep. Dan Beiser (D-Alton), state Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea), state Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton), Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan, Chief Supervisor of Construction and the Works Chuck Etwert and Project Manager Jim Solari tour a levee construction project Monday.
EAST ALTON — Eighty-six miles of levees separate the Metro East from the waters of the mighty Mississippi River, and those levees are receiving some much-needed attention and upgrades.
State Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton), state Rep. Dan Beiser (D-Alton) and Madison County officials visited the test site on Monday on Illinois 143 (the Berm Highway) near the Wood River Creek to review progress on updates to the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District.
“The bottom line is the people in our area will be protected,” Haine said. “There are two things that this project is fixing; the worst-case scenario is a breach in the levee system, the second is if FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) would decertify the levees. That would threaten the viability of our economic base. Business would not be able to expand, homeowners would not be able to afford flood insurance, small and medium businesses would suffer. If either of those two things happen, it would prevent the chance of any economic growth. If they decertify this levee, the entire bottomland would be ineffective floodplain.”
Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council Chief Supervisor of Construction and the Works Check Etwert conducted a tour and gave the officials an update on the systemwide upgrades.
“The levees protect 174 square miles, including more than 155,000 people, 4,000 businesses and 55,000 jobs,” Etwert said. “When many people hear us say we’re working on the levee, they ask the same question, ‘How high are you making it?’ In this case, we are not going higher; we are going deeper.”
Workers are building a 1,900-foot-long, 140-foot-deep subterranean wall made of cement and bentonite, a type of absorbent clay. The wall will stabilize the levee and prevent water from seeping through or beneath the earth. The estimated price tag for the project work is $72 million, with $41 million having been paid out as of October and an expected surplus of $15 to $20 million. Overall construction is on track to be completed by next summer.
“We all learned from the floods of 1993,” Beiser said. “The danger to the economic well-being of the entire area is at the mercy of the Mississippi River. This levee system is the first line of protection and what we’ve seen in past floods are some places in our levee that have been compromised due to years of rising floodwaters and erosion. We found very effective ways to fund these necessary improvements that will bring this levee to the 100- and 500-year mark. This is not a Band-Aid project; this is a complete fix to the system and it allows room for future maintenance.”
Haine sponsored the bill in the General Assembly in 2007-2008 with sponsorship from Beiser in the House. The bill created the flood prevention district and authorized a one-quarter percent sales tax in Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties.
“The flood prevention district is made of three members from each county and one engineer,” Haine said. “FEMA was actually surprised how rapidly the bill was passed and the ball began to roll. This flood prevention district has performed by the mandate given by the state and it’s been done without political baggage. Other areas have seen what we’ve accomplished and they are concluding that the Metro East knows how to get it done. This is what can happen when we work together in a bipartisan fashion. We’ve become exhibit A.”
As upgrades are made to protect against a 100-year flood, planning is under way to be able to handle a 500-year flood, the maximum federally authorized protection level. A 100-year flood is an event that has the probability of occurring once in 100 years. Flood stage in St. Louis for the Mississippi is 30 feet; a 100-year flood would occur if the river reached 54 feet. The governing council already has approved designs for the 500-year flood level improvements in the Wood River and Metro East Sanitary District levee systems, with construction expected to start in October 2016.