IBJ: A lot of work has gone into improving the Metro East levees. The trigger was the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s threat to decertify all the levees. That was almost 10 years ago.
Etwert: What happened was you had (Hurricane) Katrina in 2005. And the Corps of Engineers said, “We’re not sure these levees will meet the 100-year requirements without flood-fighting (improvements).” When they said that, FEMA said it was going to have to decertify the levees. And of course, if FEMA would have decertified the levees, they would have assumed for mapping purposes that the levees weren’t even there. And these are levees that have been there 50 or 60 years, levees that survived the ’93 flood. Flood insurance rates would have gone dramatically up. The estimate was it was going to cost residents and businesses here some $50 million.
IBJ: A lot of people don’t realize what it took for the area to respond to the threat, since FEMA never did go through with decertification.
Etwert: Absolutely. We are a textbook case of three, separate governmental entities coming together to address a problem. The levee system here protects a very large population (around 155,000). And it’s very diverse — farming on the south, manufacturing and warehousing on the north and the central corridor population area.
The three counties looked at the situation and Sen. (Bill) Haine got the Illinois Flood Act passed, which really just applies to Monroe, St. Clair and Madison counties, allowing them, individually, to create flood districts. The law also gave them the opportunity to join together to create a council, which they did.
The counties got together and approved levying a quarter-cent sales tax. That provides about $11 million a year in total. Roughly 47.5 percent comes through St. Clair, 47.5 percent comes through Madison and 5 percent comes through Monroe, based on the sales tax generated. That’s county wide, not just the areas protected by the levees.
IBJ: You came in a few years into this?
Etwert: I came on board in 2013 as most of the construction was starting. The law allowed them to hire a chief supervisor. Les Sterman was here, and he got the project basically through design and the start of construction.
IBJ: How much has been generated in sales tax since the very beginning?
Etwert: Well, you can figure about $11 million a year since 2009. The act also allowed the issuance of bonds, which we did around 2010 and again in 2015.
IBJ: What did the Corps say about the original timetable?
Etwert: We asked the Corps how long it would take to bring the levees up to their standard, and the Corps said based on past funding they couldn’t get the levees up to a 500-year standard until 2044. Our council though said, “We’ve got to take action now.” The council had two goals, one was to achieve the 100-year level and the second, if there were any funds still available, do what we could do toward the 500-year standard. (A 100-year flood is statistically one with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. A 500-year is one with a 0.2 percent chance.)
IBJ: What’s the difference in the work done under the 500-year plan?
Etwert: It could be more relief wells to handle the pressure of more water. It could be more seepage berms to strengthen the levees and it could be more cut-off walls. Basically, it’s doing more of what you did for the 100-year.
IBJ: What was the original 100-year cost estimate?
Etwert: The estimate at that time was something like $160 million. But, through good design and good bids, we are probably going to get it all done for maybe $115 million to $117 million.
IBJ: Where do the improvements stand now?
Etwert: All the 100-year level projects will be completed by August or September of this year. We’ve already submitted two certification packages to FEMA. We have three other packages to go. As pieces are finished, the packages are submitted to FEMA.
We’re doing improvements along 64 miles of levee from Alton all the way down to Columbia. Five levee systems are involved in that. Wood River (Drainage and Levee District), the Metro East Sanitary District at East St. Louis, Prairie DuPont (near Dupo) and Fish Lake (near Columbia). And you also have the Corps of Engineers’ levees at Chain of Rocks.
The packages for the (levees) along the east and west forks of the Wood River were submitted in December. The Corps of Engineers submitted Upper Wood River in March. That includes the Mel Price Locks and Dam.
Lower Wood River, we hope to submit this fall. MESD should be submitted by Dec. 31, and Prairie du Pont and Fish Lake by the second quarter of 2017. We’re working in tandem with the Corps submitting this to FEMA.
IBJ: You’ve had some delays in recent years.
Etwert: We were delayed by high-river events, one in June of ’14, the other one in December/January of 2015-16.
IBJ: Didn’t the Corps also cause part of the delay?
Etwert: We had done some design using plastic pipes, which the Corps had approved. But in August 2015 the Corps said if we put in reinforced concrete pipe instead of plastic pipe, we could eliminate 14,400 feet of deep cutoff wall and also qualify for the 500-year standard. That would save us $62 million off the overall cost of the 500-year. However, we already had it designed and under construction. The board agreed to submit revised plans to the Corps in 2015. That took ’til December to get approved — and that’s when we had the flood. The river came up high enough that the contractors couldn’t get in there to take out the plastic pipe and put in the concrete, along three different stretches. The river did not go down sufficiently until November 2016. That was almost a year delay from where we thought we would be.
We are dependent on the river (levels). It seems like every time we had a board meeting, the river would go up right after the board meeting. I’d look at the projections for the river to be down, and all of a sudden there would be a random event and the river’s up.
IBJ: Let’s say the weather is perfect from this point on. What’s the best-case scenario?
Etwert: All the 100-year construction will be completed by late summer, and all the packages will be submitted by December.
IBJ: What happens from that point on?
Etwert: FEMA will review for three to 12 months. They won’t do anything with their maps until 2019. They are working with us and know exactly what we’re doing. They might want additional information, but we think we have pretty darn good packages. I’d be shocked if they come back with anything. AMEC Foster Wheeler (the council’s consultant, a national firm with a Collinsville office) has done this before.
IBJ: Because this area got its act together and started as far back as it did, it’s really ahead of a lot of other levee systems up and down the Mississippi, isn’t it?
Etwert: Absolutely. I think those systems are in danger and may not be able to attract new businesses because there will be concerns about the levees. Homeowners, they’re protected by the 100-year standard. Businesses, they want the 500-year; they want that extra level of protection.
When you tell people you’re improving the levees, they want to know how much higher you’re making them. We’re not adding anything to the elevation. It’s all stability of the levee, taking care of the seepage that goes underneath or through the levee.
IBJ: While FEMA is reviewing, are you going to proceed on other projects?
Etwert: Yes, that’s the good news. We’re going to achieve the 100-year, and we’re going to have about $80 million to $85 million available toward the Corps’ authorized (500-year) level. With that, we should be able to get 65 percent funding from the Corps of Engineers for Wood River and East St. Louis. In Prairie du Pont and Fish Lake, the benefit-cost ratio from the Corps isn’t high enough for them to justify the 65 percent funding. Of the 35 percent funding that we have to get, 5 percent has to be cash contribution to the Corps – 5 percent for oversight, 5 percent for design, whatever.
Based on the current estimates of the Corps, we might have enough to do everything we need to do to achieve the authorized level, from Alton to Columbia. The key will be the Corps getting their 65 percent funding. If they get that funding in the next few years, I believe it is possible to get the authorized level projects done by 2025 — maybe 20 years sooner than original estimates.
IBJ: How long will the sales tax go on?
Etwert: It will continue until the bonds are paid off. The bonds will go ’til 2040.
IBJ: So, you’ll be collecting the sales tax all the way?
Etwert: We will. And the reason we will is we had two bond issues. The first was, like, $95 million, and the second was $85 million, and to pay off all those bonds we need to collect that sales tax.
At this point we can’t issue any more bonds because we don’t have the capability to pay for them. Maybe five to 10 years down the road, we might be able to issue another $2 million or $3 million just refinancing, but the amount would be very small. We are maxed out on what we can borrow or issue in bonds.