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Corps Pushes To Finish Levee Fixes

A levee along the Chain of Rocks canal in America's Central Port in Granite City, Ill.
(Véronique LaCapra/St. Louis Public Radio)
A levee along the Chain of Rocks canal in America's Central Port in Granite City, Ill.

Upgrading the Metro East’s aging levees is finally on Washington’s radar, according to officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Yet they warn that the push for more federal funding must continue if the Corps hopes to bring the levees back to 500 year flood protection standards by 2021. That's the Corps’ latest projection for completing the work.

"We’re in favor, if you will, with the administration, but the critical piece of that is our ability to execute funds that were given so that we can drive to the conclusion," said Lou Dell’Orco, a project manager with the Corps.

The Obama administration included $30 million dollar in its FY14 budget for levee projects in the area.

The Corps held an informational meeting about the levee upgrades Wednesday morning in Alton. After the meeting, Dell’Orco said the  project risks losing that money unless it can be  matched locally at a 25 percent rate. That means the Southwest Illinois Flood Prevention District Council must provide $7.5 million.

Meanwhile, others are urging people to maintain pressure on elected officials to keep the federal funding coming.

Ron Zeh spoke at the meeting on behalf of FM Global, a company that insures 70 industrial and commercial properties located behind the levee system.

Zeh says the value of those properties is put at $4.8 billion.

He’s encouraging his clients to call their representatives and senators.

"If we don’t contact our elected officials and help them understand how important it is to continue this funding over the long-term, to get back to that 500-year level of flood protection, it’s possible they could re-prioritize or vanish all together," Zeh said.

A more pressing deadline faces local businesses and residents of the region. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced in 2007 that the Metro East levee system did not meet 100 year flood protection levels. The agency set a 2015 deadline for improvements, or property owners could see a big jump in flood insurance costs.

Voters in St. Clair, Monroe, and Madison Counties responded by approving a quarter cent sales tax dedicated to fixing the levees. Les Sterman, construction supervisor with the Southwest Illinois Flood Prevention District Council, told St. Louis Public Radio in November that his organization was on track to complete its share of upgrades by the deadline.

What remains unclear is whether FEMA will waive the 2015 deadline for the Army Corps’ efforts to return the system to its original 500 year flood protection. The Corps’ Dell’Orco said Wednesday that it's up to FEMA to answer the question.

"What I do know is that our schedule is the most efficient use of a funds stream that we can execute in any one given year to complete the project," he said.

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.