The American Bottom Levee Restoration Project (2007 – 2017)
By ALAN J. ORTBALS
The Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District has completed its work to restore the levees to meet the 100-year flood standard and has submitted documents seeking that accreditation. What follows is a look back at the history of this 10-year project.
In August of 2005 Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and laid waste to the city of New Orleans. In its aftermath, Congress appropriated funds to have the Federal Emergency Management Agency review and evaluate the urban flood plains across the country and alter its flood risk maps accordingly. The FEMA flood maps are used by local planning and zoning offices, banks and other lending institutions. Areas designated on the maps as high risk for flooding are required to purchase expensive flood insurance. One of these areas that came under FEMA review was the American Bottom of the Mississippi River in Southwestern Illinois.
FEMA drops bombshell — American Bottom to be hit with expensive flood insurance mandate
In a meeting of FEMA and local officials in August, 2007 a FEMA spokesperson threw a bombshell on the table, according to then-Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan.
The federal agency, which is broken into 10 regions, was undertaking the remapping project on an area by area basis and the American Bottom was near the top of the list. A map was being developed that would show the entire American Bottom as a high hazard flood area; a draft would be ready by early summer 2008; and it would become official by the summer of 2009. The impact of this action would be devastating.
Since the construction of the levees in the 1940s, most of the American Bottom had been considered an area of low to moderate risk of flooding by FEMA. According to Dunstan, when FEMA made its announcement, only 1 percent of Bottom residents carried flood insurance. However, under federal law, anyone in a high hazard flood area who has a mortgage from a federally regulated or insured lender and that mortgage is secured by a building, has to buy flood insurance. And, the cost of that insurance is nearly quadruple that of properties in low to moderate risk areas.
While premiums vary with individual circumstances, www.floodsmart.gov, the official site of the National Flood Insurance Program, estimated that a $100,000 home in a moderate to low risk zone would pay $287 per year for flood insurance including coverage on its contents (2008 rates). However, if that home was in a high risk zone, the premium would jump to $825 for the building alone. Add content coverage and the price would jump to $1,143.
On the other end of the spectrum, federally backed flood insurance capped at $250,000 for a single-family home. If more than that was owed, the owner would need to seek additional insurance on the private market.
And businesses weren’t exempt. The same requirements applied to non-residential property as well. According to floodsmart.gov, a half-million-dollar building, with a half-million dollars’ worth of contents — whether that be supplies, inventory or equipment — would see a premium jump from $4,736 to $11,237 per year. And FEMA capped its insurance coverage for non-residential property at the $500,000 level. Anything more would require the owner to go to the private market.
Also, new developments would have to be raised above flood levels, greatly increasing construction. It was reported that Opus Northwest, a Minneapolis-based developer of real estate projects across North America, pulled out of a proposed $600 million development in the Pontoon Beach area because of the FEMA threat.
Area leaders devise plan to buy time, dodge FEMA bombshell
The problem was complex and multi-faceted.
Estimates from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put the cost of repairs at $180 million or more. If this cost was to be limited to the taxing powers of the individual levee districts, the impact on property taxes in the American Bottom would have been severe, causing further impact on cash-strapped home owners and businesses.
Because the problem was spread over three counties, 25 cities and four levee districts, managing the problem would be a huge hurdle.
And third, the clock was ticking. It was estimated that the necessary repairs could take five to 10 years to complete. Meanwhile the new maps would become effective in August of 2009 — just two years away.
Area leaders devised a plan to try to buy time before the maps would become operational and meanwhile create a mechanism for funding and management of the repair program.
SWIL delegation works with state legislature to pass enabling legislation
One of the people attending the August meeting was Illinois state Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton. He said that he came away from the meeting mulling over the problem and trying to think of a mechanism that would provide funding, establish governance and be palatable to the people of Southwestern Illinois, the legislature and the governor.
Haine said that he laid out a template based on something he had been involved in almost 30 years before — the creation of the Madison and St. Clair County Transit Districts. These were separate agencies, with separate boards, funded by sales tax and answerable to their respective county boards. He asked the East-West Gateway Council of Governments for the retail sales figures for the three counties. He checked with a mortgage banker to get an estimate of the amount of debt the projected annual revenue could support.
Based upon this information, Haine drafted a bill that would allow each of the three counties — Madison, St. Clair and Monroe — to establish a flood prevention district and create a three-member commission to address flood controls. With the approval of the County Board, the commission would have authority to establish a retail sales tax of up to a quarter of a cent throughout the county to pay for levee repairs. The commission would have the authority to issue revenue bonds backed by its sales tax receipts.
According to Haine, based on 2007 retail sales levels in the three-county area, the sales tax could support a bond issue of $170 million to $180 million. The tax would sunset after 25 years or sooner if the debt was repaid in less time.
Haine filed his bill on Feb. 7, 2008. The bill passed both houses with large majorities and was quickly signed by the governor. It became effective on May 21, 2008.
During the summer of 2008, all three counties established their levee commissions and adopted the sales tax provisions. The tax took effect on Jan. 1, 2009.
Costello, Shimkus, Durbin work to get FEMA to slow down remapping process
While Southwestern Illinois’ state legislators were working on the funding bill, Costello and Shimkus were successfully working to pass legislation to require FEMA to delay implementation of the new flood maps until the entire watershed was completed.
As drafted, that legislation would have affected all the flood plains in the nation that would be reviewed by FEMA. The bill passed the House unanimously and was sent to the Senate. The Senate, however, passed a different version sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois. The Senate version was specific to the St. Louis watershed. Because two different versions were passed, the bill was sent to a conference committee to resolve the differences.
During the summer of 2008, Costello, Shimkus and Durbin held multiple meetings with FEMA officials in an effort to negotiate an administrative solution. Costello said that after the bill passed the House, FEMA officials expected it would just go away. But, he said, once it passed the Senate and went to a conference committee, he, Shimkus and Durbin were able to convince them that they would pass a bill that would impact the entire nation, something that FEMA very much did not want to see happen.
On Sept. 23, 2008, FEMA agreed to hold off the remapping of the American Bottom until the entire watershed, including the Missouri side of the river, had been completed. This, it was thought, would buy Southwestern Illinois leaders two to three years of additional time to make the mandatory repairs.
This victory was short-lived, however, as FEMA officials sidestepped the agreement by escalating the review of the Missouri side and approving those levees under the Provisionally Accredited Levee (PAL) process. That action, in essence, negated the agreement by bringing the Missouri side into alignment with the Illinois-side schedule.
Costello then introduced a new bill that would give areas like the American Bottom up to seven years to carry out necessary repairs before the new maps could become official. That bill stalled.
In desperation, the three counties, the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District, several municipalities and other agencies and individuals filed a lawsuit seeking injunctive relief in November 2010 in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis. Named as defendants were FEMA, the agency’s director, W. Craig Fugate, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged that FEMA:
• Failed to produce information that justified its decision to de-accredit the levees.
• Denied appeals of the decision.
• Had proceeded despite Corps of Engineers reports that said the levees will “perform as expected.”
• Did not follow the law or its own regulations, which required consultations with local officials and notice that would have allowed local officials to submit information about levee conditions before a decision.
While the court issued an order of dismissal on Aug. 1, 2011, it was in part because FEMA had agreed to rescind its 2009 maps that were the point of contention, according to David Human of the law firm of Husch Blackwell, lead counsel for the SWIFPD.
Design and construction
While the legislative, administrative and legal battle was being waged, the SIFPD Council was moving quickly to understand the problem, engineer a solution and begin construction. In May 2010, a design competition was held and AMEC Foster Wheeler was selected to design and manage the construction of the levee improvements.
The American Bottom is protected by a series of levees that were built in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There are three systems that are managed by four different levee districts and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Wood River Drainage and Levee District maintains 20.8 miles of levees in the River Bend area.
The Metro East Sanitation District maintains the levees from the Cahokia Creek on the north to the Harding Ditch on the south.
The Prairie DuPont Levee and Sanitary District and the Fish Lake Levee District manage a levee system in the Dupo/East Carondolet/Columbia area.
It was these areas that AMEC Foster Wheeler was responsible for planning and implementing solutions. The USACE had full responsibility for the Chain of Rocks canal and an area stretching from the Mel Price Locks and Dam west to the Alton Marina.
Jon Omvig is the manager of AMEC Foster Wheeler’s St. Louis office. He said that the plan ultimately came down to the utilization of four flood control techniques: installation of earth blankets on the back side of the levees; installation of graded filters to mitigate water pressure; installation of relief wells that would also reduce pressure; and construction of cutoff walls that would provide an impenetrable barrier down the center of the levee. Which methods were used varied and some were used in combination. Cutoff walls were only installed in the Wood River area.
Chuck Etwert, chief supervisor of construction and the works for the SWIFPD, stressed that none of the plans called for raising the height of the levees.
Construction began in 2012 and was completed last year. During that time it was delayed by three floods that challenged construction and stressed the need for healthy levees.
Also, during that time, noted Etwert, both FEMA and the USACE seemed to change their attitudes.
Rather than rushing to implement new FIRM maps, Etwert said that FEMA changed its position to waiting for the district to complete its work and submit documentation.
Similarly, while there was some head-butting early on, the USACE assisted the SWIFPD in saving money through value engineering. In one instance, Etwert said, the Corps offered that, if reinforced concrete pipe was used in Cahokia rather than plastic, 14,500 feet of cutoff wall could be eliminated, saving $62 million.
Etwert said that all work necessary to meet the 100-year flood protection standard has been completed with a total expenditure of about $120 million, saving a total of about $40 million along the way. All documentation has been submitted to the USACE and FEMA and the council is expecting to receive accreditation in early 2019. Work is now underway to make the improvements necessary to bring the levees to the 500-year flood protection level and Etwert says that there is approximately $75 million on hand to begin that work.
“We want to make those improvements as quickly as we can to provide extra levels of protection for the area,” Etwert said.
Etwert gives great credit to the county chairmen and members SWIFPD Council and the district’s first chief, Les Sterman, who managed the project through the difficult early stages.
“We’ve had this board intact since 2009,” he said. “Six of the board members have been here from the very beginning. That kind of stability helped make this possible.”
Also instrumental in the project’s success was the St. Louis Metro East Levee Issues Alliance. A nonprofit organization, the Alliance was made up more than 400 members. It was created by the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois to help keep the project on track and met regularly with the USACE, the SWIFPD and Southwestern Illinois’ congressional delegation.