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Engineering report says Valley Park levee may have been built too high

The Fenton Water Treatment Plant was knocked offline due to historic flooding.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI
When the Meramec River spilled over its banks in historic flooding earlier this year, it knocked the Fenton Water Treatment Plant off line.

The Valley Park levee in St. Louis County may have been built too high, according to new findings from a private engineering firm hired by a conservation group.

The report by Pickett, Ray and Silver Inc. commissioned by the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, concludedthat four locations along the levee exceeded the maximum height allowed by the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers, which is 435 feet above sea level. One spot surpassed the standard by 8 feet.

The Valley Park levee is more than 3 miles wide and sits along the Meramec River. Built in 2005 by the Corps of Engineers, the project was funded by $35 million in federal funds and $17 million from the city of Valley Park. The effort was prompted by a disastrous flood in 1982.

Suspicions regarding the levee’s height were raised earlier this year by experts after record-breaking flooding from the Meramec and Mississippi Rivers damaged 7,100 homes, businesses and public buildings and claimed two dozen lives. Critics say the levee protected the Valley Park community, but diverted water to the neighboring cities of Eureka, Fenton, Kirkwood and Arnold.

“What are we doing as a region if we’re allowing one group to protect themselves at the expense of others?” said Washington University professor Bob Criss, who studies floods.

In January, Criss said that the levee was built five feet higher than the Army Corps authorized. He also published a study in the Journal of Earth Science that suggested that the it contributed to severe flood damage last December.

“I’ve seen for a long time, especially in this region, that constriction of the rivers is the main factor causing our floodwaters to be too high,” he said.

Criss also worked with the engineers who conducted a study of the levee on Aug. 9.

Glenn Jamboretz, a member of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, wrote in a comment distributed with their report, “It is worth noting that if Valley Park had complied with the authorized elevation, water would have over-topped its levee at 437 ft. on December 30 and 31. By having their levees at 438-443 ft, they stayed dry, but forced the water to surrounding communities.”

The report alarms Fenton Alderman Joe Maurath, who expressed concern about the levee long before it was built.

“They went ahead with [building the levee] and now to find out that it was built 5 feet higher causes more concern,” he said. “How did we get to this point? People are owed an explanation.”

The December food damaged about 90 commercial businesses and 130 residences in Fenton.

Upstream, the city of Eureka also suffered major damage, but Mayor Kevin Coffey wants confirmation from federal authorities that the height of the Valley Park Levee had an impact there.

“We need numbers and we’re hoping that the Army Corps of Engineers and experts will tell us what effect this has had on our community,” Coffey said. “Just a few inches of [floodwater] caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.”

In statement, the St. Louis District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it designed and constructed “the entirety of the Valley Park Flood Risk Reduction System in full compliance with all federal and state laws and regulations and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' policies in effect at the time of the design.”

Valley Park Mayor Mike Pennise declined to comment on the report.

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli


Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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