Cahokia Heights, East St. Louis ask Army Corps for help to stop flooding
The mayors of Cahokia Heights and East St. Louis have submitted a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, asking for help to get funding to repair a drainage ditch that has a pivotal role in the cities’ long-standing flooding.
The Harding Ditch, which runs from Madison County through many St. Clair County communities, does not properly drain with heavy rains, according to assessments by the Corps and engineering firms.
“The water cannot drain from any of these communities into this ditch,” Cahokia Heights Mayor Curtis McCall Sr. said Thursday at a news conference seeking the Corps' involvement. “And so where does the water go? It goes back into the city of Cahokia Heights and to the city of East St. Louis. It goes on our streets. It goes into our homes.”
The Corps said it's "committed to providing long-term flood risk management" for the neighboring cities.
"We are looking forward to working with mayors Curtis McCall Sr. and Robert Eastern III, and their teams on this difficult problem within these communities," said spokesman George Stringham in a statement.
The Harding Ditch has been a problem for a long time, the mayors said. When it was built more than 100 years ago, the Metro East looked much different. A majority of the area was farmland, they said.
Now, much of the area is urban or suburban, and that creates extra runoff water that’s flowing down to East St. Louis and Cahokia Heights via the ditch.
Engineers from Hurst Rosche Inc. of East St. Louis and Thompson Civil of Belleville estimate the repairs to the ditch would cost nearly $100 million and would take over a decade to complete. The cost of the project is one of the many reasons the mayors and engineers are asking the Corps for help.
The mayors are also asking for those neighboring communities — Belleville, Caseyville, Collinsville, Fairview Heights, Swansea and others in St. Clair and Madison counties — to help pay for maintenance by the Metro East Sanitary District, the agency that’s responsible for the ditch.
Because the Harding Ditch runs through those communities, the mayors and the executive director of the sanitary district say they should help with the cost.
“If we were in a white community in St. Clair County, or Madison, this problem would have been taken care of,” McCall said. “There’s no way without calling it what it is: environmental racism.”
While the Harding Ditch doesn’t run through all those other communities, the sanitary district, which collects taxes from its communities, still gets a lot of stormwater and runoff from the other cities and villages, said Rick Fancher, the executive director. He grew up in Centreville and remembers flooding in the community in the 1960s and '70s.
“I've been on this bandwagon for 12 years now,” Fancher said.
Fairview Heights Mayor Mark Kupsky said he’s sympathetic to flooding in those communities, but he’s not in favor of paying into the district that doesn’t include much of his town.
“The taxing district should be responsible for the construction, maintenance and improvements on those facilities that they own,” he said.
For example, both Fairview Heights and O’Fallon pay for the maintenance of Ogles Creek, which runs through those cities. To Kupsky, it would be unfair to ask other municipalities to help pay for that creek.
Jim Nold, an engineer with Hurst-Rosche, said the Metro East Sanitary District has only been able to perform periodic maintenance on the Harding Ditch. That’s not been good enough to keep three to five feet of silt from piling up. He likened the ditch’s current situation to a house’s gutter that’s not been cleaned.
“It fills up faster, and there’s less capacity for local drainage to enter the ditch and take it away from homes and streets,” Nold said.
While it’s a part of the overall flooding problem in Cahokia Heights, the endeavor to clean up the ditch would be completely separate from a nearly $10 million project funded by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which will repair many of the city’s faulty sewer pumps.
Cahokia Heights has received $2.4 million of the state grant money, and the city and engineers are drawing up construction plans.