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St. Louis Officials Prepare Sewers And Levees For Flooding As Mississippi River Rises

A MSD worker about to plug a manhole in north St. Louis ahead of moderate river flooding in March 2019.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
A Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District worker dives into a manhole in north St. Louis to install a plug to help keep flooding from the Mississippi River from overpowering the sewers and causing backups into homes.

As the Mississippi River continues to rise, utilities and government agencies in the St. Louis region are taking steps to protect sewers, levees and other facilities that could be affected by moderate flooding.

Above-average snowmelt and rainfall from northern parts of the Midwest have caused river levels to rise in the St. Louis region. The National Weather Service reported Thursday that the river at St. Louis is at 34.8 feet. Meteorologists expect the river to crest at 36.3 feet by late Wednesday.

In anticipation of moderate flooding, which occurs at 35 feet, the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District plugged two manholes in St. Louis, in north and south St. Louis.

When river levels are high, there’s an increased chance that flooding could overtake the sewer system, said Bess McCoy, a spokesperson for MSD.

“Our goal is just to keep water from the river out of our system and keeping it from backing up into people’s homes,” McCoy said, as a diver installed a plug on Riverside Drive in north St. Louis. “This is one area that water can back up easily into our system from the river. The best way we found to keep that from happening is to install plugs here.”

A MSD worker installing a plug in a manhole near Riverview Drive in north St. Louis in March 2019.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
A MSD worker installing a plug in a manhole near Riverview Drive in north St. Louis.

MSD workers also are installing pumps at the manholes on Riverview Drive and Hamburg Avenue in south St. Louis to help remove water from the river. In other parts of the metro area, MSD bolts down manholes and installs cones, cylinder blocks that are as long as the manhole so that water can rise without spilling into the street.

MSD has been on “flood duty,” since mid-March, McCoy said. When the river levels hit 28 feet, just a couple feet shy of the flood stage in St. Louis, the sewer district keeps its pump stations staffed around the clock.

The Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis also activated its emergency-response center on March 15, after the town of Clarksville requested sandbags and other supplies to fend off potential flooding. Engineers from the corps’ St. Louis District have also been communicating with the Riverport Levee District in Maryland Heights regarding flooding from the Missouri River.

The corps expects to keep its emergency-response center activated through April, said John Osterhage, chief of emergency operations of its St. Louis District.

“That’s when we’re expecting the bulk of the water from the snowmelt in the northern states of the Midwest to melt and make its way down through our area,” Ostehage said.

Officials from the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey don’t expect flooding in St. Louis to hit record levels, like it has for residents in Nebraska, Illinois and western Missouri. There was less snow in Missouri than other parts of the Midwest that have been more affected by flooding, said Shane Barks, Deputy Director for the USGS Central Midwest Science Center in Rolla.

“The water is working its way down, and it’s not as severe, because the channels are much bigger,” Barks said.

Flooding in early spring is common when snow melts, but it’s unusual that the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are experiencing severe flooding at the same time, said Patrick Walsh, a meterologist at the National Weather Service.

The National Weather Service has issued a flood warning that is in effect until late Friday. It also predicts that rain will occur this weekend.

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