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St. Charles To Raise Levees To Cut Flood Insurance Costs And Attract Development

An illustration of flooded homes.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
The city of St. Charles has released plans to raise its Elm Point and Frenchtown levees. The flood of 2019 topped the Elm Point levee last spring, forcing the evacuation of an RV and mobile home park.

St. Charles officials plan to substantially raise two levees to reduce flood-related costs for residents and property owners. 

City engineers aim to augment the Frenchtown and Elm Point levees to fend off floods that have a 1-in-500 shot of happening in any given year. The Frenchtown and Elm Point levees can fight floods that have a 4% and 5% chance of occurring in a year. 

Area environmentalists have long opposed raising levees, which can constrict rivers and exacerbate flooding. But elevating the levees is necessary to protect property and reduce flood insurance costs, said Brad Temme, the city’s director of engineering.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency redrew floodplain maps in 2016, which put hundreds of St. Charles residents in the floodplain and increased their insurance rates. 

“If you just look at it on a larger scale and say, 'Well, we’ve just added 300-and-something-odd residents who weren’t there four years ago, and they’re paying $4,000 a year,'” Temme said. “That’s a decent amount of money they’re paying for flood protection. Is there a better way to do that?”

Raising the levees also would help parts of St. Charles that have struggled to attract development, he said. 

“Looking to the future, how do we create jobs, how do we create opportunities for new businesses and industry to locate in St. Charles so we can continue to be a center for economic development?” Temme said. 

The Elm Point Levee protects 1,400 acres of mostly agricultural land. Flooding along the Mississippi River in 2019 topped the Elm Point levee, causing flash floods that forced an RV and mobile home park to evacuate. The smaller Frenchtown levee protects about 400 homes. 

It could take city engineers a year to study the levees’ impact on other communities and gather feedback from the public, Temme said. It could be several years before any construction takes place. 

Costs of the project are still being determined, but officials estimate that the levee district would invest $15 million into raising the Elm Point levee, Temme said. 

Research from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, Washington University and other academic institutions has shown that levees, dams and other flood-protection structures can constrict rivers and raise floodwaters for surrounding communities.

Elevating the levees in St. Charles would not resolve the area’s flooding problems over the long term, said David Stokes, executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. 

“Each one of these levees makes the flooding a little bit worse,” Stokes said. “Not only do [municipalities] spend a fortune to move the problem, they just make the problem a little bit worse.” 

A 2018 report from multiple federal agencies concluded that climate change will bring heavier rains to the Midwest, which could lead to bigger floods in the coming years. 

The city should consider restoring wetlands to increase floodwater storage and collaborating with other municipalities in St. Charles County, Stokes said.

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