Long-awaited Cahokia Heights sewer repairs could begin this year but not finish until 2026
After repeated calls by Cahokia Heights residents for relief from sewage and rainwater flooding for years, repairs to the city’s faulty system could start by the end of the year.
“We're gonna do our best to get work done as quickly as we can,” said Jim Nold, senior project manager at Hurst Rosche, the engineering firm designing the project for the city. “We realize that some of this stuff is urgent and people are patiently waiting for shovels to hit the ground. So we're gonna go as fast as we can go.”
In the meantime, residents may have to endure another summer of sewage in their homes and yards.
“You mean to tell me we’ve got to deal with another year of flooding like this?” said Yvette Lyles, a longtime resident, who lives near Piat Place, a neighborhood that’s seen some of the worst flooding. “A bunch of bull coming up in the yard again and then the house, the crawlspace and pumping all of this raw sewage out again until they’ve actually started construction.”
For the nearly $10 million Illinois Environmental Protection Agency grant, city officials and engineers are mapping out details for bid applications. Those will be sent out in coming weeks.
“That’s just the process,” Mayor Curtis McCall Sr. said. “Nothing that's done right is done in a hurry. It takes time. If I could wave a magic wand and get it done tomorrow, I wish that I could.”
Residents said they had no idea when work would start for the sewer repairs, despite construction plans posted on the state EPA website. Many said they didn’t know where to find that information.
Some of Lyles' neighbors recently wrote a letter to federal, state and local officials asking for better communication and an immediate fix of the city’s sewers.
“Our experiences in trying to make our homes habitable have been characterized by a frustrating lack of urgency from those who are meant to represent us,” the residents wrote.
The state awarded the grant last August and officials like Gov. J.B. Pritzker promised change soon, but residents say they have yet to see much. Some, like Cornelius Bennett, remain skeptical about the planned repairs because of that.
“It just seems like we’re at a standstill, and homes are still getting flooded,” said Bennett, a member of one of the resident groups suing city officials over the long-standing concerns. “People are still having problems. The one thing we could do is just sit and wait and try to keep all the water off as best we can.”
Bennett said he saw some work on the ditches near his home in the past year. Since, he’s not seen much.
For Jennifer Chike, who moved to Cahokia Heights with her husband and children in 2019, the lack of progress is frustrating.
“We wanted to be here,” Chike said. “We believe Black communities like ours are like this because everyone moves away and no one invests.”
Chike and other Cahokia Heights residents who have lived with backed up sewers for years said they’re hopeful the repair projects can solve the problems. But getting across the finish line is something many say they’ll have to see for themselves.
“You have to have hope,” Chike said. “But I don’t have hope that it’s going to come from our leaders. I think it’s going to be us, as residents, organizing and gathering our voices together and getting loud enough to get something done.”
Grant details and timeline
Construction for the sewer repair project was originally scheduled to begin in January 2024, according to the project's plans. However, Nold said repairs could come sooner.
“I think there'll be a significant amount of work that’s started before the end of the year,” he said.
The project will rehabilitate or restore 35 stations that pump sewage and thousands of feet of sewer pipe. That includes the city’s main line, which the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to chip in an additional $3.5 million for, the city announced Wednesday.
In all, the sewer project will take 24 months to complete, meaning it ends in February 2026.
Nold said the city will prioritize repairs for the north side of town, which has the worst sewer problems.
They’ll also add two interception sewers in the same area, which will keep the sewer water from Cahokia Heights in the city. Currently, some of those waters flow north into East St. Louis, where Cahokia Heights doesn’t have control over it.
While this project will help with a portion of the city’s long-standing sewer issue, there’s still much more work to be done, said Matt Missey, another engineer, who's consulting Cahokia Heights on the project.
“We want to be clear that the improvements made by the work scope in this grant is not a guarantee that all the issues will be fixed, that all the flooding will subside, that people still won't have sewer problems,” Missey said. “We're dealing with, in some areas, 50- to 80-year-old infrastructure, and there is a limit to how many dollars are out there to do this work.”
In all, this construction costs $9.86 million. The remaining money from the grant, nearly $113,000, will fund a community outreach program run by Baxton and Associates based in O’Fallon, Illinois.
A required portion of the state grant, the city’s outreach team will host public meetings, where engineers and city staff will brief the public about the project. According to grant plans, the meetings were scheduled to begin in April. McCall said they’ll likely be this month.
At some point this year, the outreach team, in partnership with Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work, will go door-to-door to reach people who do not have access to the internet or who cannot attend meetings.
The outreach team will also post signs across the city that have links to a new website. Cahokia Heights will be required to update this webpage with information about the project.
McCall said communication is something that fell through the cracks before, but he’d like to change that.
“They will be well informed going forward,” McCall said. “It’s something that really, truly we just have not done, and we, as a city, have to do a better job.”
What else is happening?
Illinois’ Department of Commerce and Economic Development has an additional $20.5 million earmarked for sewer and water infrastructure improvements in Cahokia Heights.
“DCEO is currently working directly with the community to support them as they work to complete the necessary grant funding requirements,” an agency spokeswoman said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA has committed to appointing a coordinator for Cahokia Heights. U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, who represents the area, asked EPA’s top official last month for the coordinator. Her office said that appointment will allow federal funds to be “quickly and responsibly disbursed to the community.”
The EPA has not yet appointed that coordinator, said Allison Lippert, a Chicago-based spokeswoman. Exactly what role the coordinator will play is also being determined, she said.
While McCall appreciates the work being done by the state, saying Pritzker has done more for Cahokia Heights “than the last 10 governors combined,” he said they’ll need more help throughout the process.
“Communities, such as Cahokia Heights, have been disinvested in for decades,” he said. “That has to change.”
To start, McCall and Robert Eastern III, the former East St. Louis mayor, sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers last month, requesting help to repair a drainage ditch that’s pivotal to the city’s stormwater flooding.
A spokesman for the Corps said the federal agency will help the cities in their endeavor. Local engineers believe repairing the ditch, which stretches 14 miles across Madison and St. Clair counties, could cost more than $100 million and take more than a decade to complete.
The mayors and engineers also believe other area communities should help pay into the sanitary district that maintains the ditch.
In the meantime, while all the details are sorted out about the problems in Cahokia Heights, the residents said they will be anxiously awaiting.
“I can't shovel poop and pee anymore,” Lyles said. “That’s probably why I got all these respiratory problems because I’m constantly cleaning somebody else’s fecal matter out of my home and crawlspace in my yard.”
Reporter Eric Schmid contributed to this report.
Correction: A group of Cahokia Heights and East St. Louis residents sent a letter to various officials. A previous St. Louis Public Radio report misidentified one resident as signing the letter.