Officials from Midwest cities and towns are finally getting a chance to reevaluate flood control after waters have begun to recede, some for the first time this year.
After 96 consecutive days above flood stage, the Mississippi River at locks and dam 15 in Rock Island, Ill., dropped below its flood stage of 15 ft in mid-June. All locks within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Rock Island District are open from Dubuque, Iowa, to Saverton, Mo., for the first time this year.
“The Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri and Arkansas rivers all reached flood stages this year,” says Jared Gartman, chief of readiness and contingency operations for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley Division. “It’s the wettest June to May in the last 124 years for the Eastern U.S. and the Mississippi Valley. It’s a top four flood of record for several Mississippi River cities. It’s the new record for consecutive days of above flood stage, breaking many 1927 flood records.”
In Davenport, Iowa, temporary protections are being taken down and downtown businesses are reopening. Mayor Frank Klipsch is putting together a task force of local officials by executive order that will meet after Independence Day. The group will look at potential protection solutions along the nine miles of riverfront in Davenport.
“What is the new normal related to flood level heights that we’ve been dealing with here and along the whole Mississippi River? Can we do more wetlands and resilient infrastructure items that we can build as part of it? And then what are some unique ways to protect and develop the riverfront?” Klipsch asked. “We’re struggling with all of those issues, helping our businesses downtown that got affected and coming together as a community.”
In Alton, Ill., which experienced flooding from both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the city’s department of public works fought standing water that had been there since March by blocking the sanitary sewers and using designated catch basins where trapped water was pumped directly into the city’s largest sewer, the 1840s-designed Piasa Street Combined Sewer.
Alton Mayor Brant Walker said that after trapped water seeped up through its sewage system in the 1993 flood, a new strategy was needed.
“Everything that normally flows out began to back up [manholes, storm drains, basements],” he says. “Using a diver to go through our laterals and block off the main kept the river from forcing its way back in.”
Walker said the department of public works lost one of the six inflatable barrel plugs that divers from River Diving and Salvage in St. Louis successfully installed, but it was a minor one that didn’t affect the operation of the system.
“We’re going to look at making some permanent shut-offs there so when this happens again, which seems to be inevitable, unfortunately, that we won’t have to call divers to swim through our sanitary lines again,” Walker says. “I give all the credit to our public works director, Bob Barnhart, for coming up with the idea.”
Vidalia, La., Mayor Buz Craft said their main focus will be dealing with seepage and soil erosion issues related to the flooding there. Craft said Vidalia’s engineering consultant, California-based Tetra Tech, was already discussing potential solutions with officials.
Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the St. Louis-based Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative estimated losses from flooding along the Mississippi River at a minimum of $2 billion, mostly from known crop losses to date. He stressed that a more realistic number will not be available until more water recedes.
Bruce Blenton, director of the agricultural marketing service with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, said year-to-date, downward bound grain barge tonnages on the upper Mississippi River measured as movements through lock 27 in St. Louis are 67% lower than the three-year average. He also noted, however, that year-to-date rail deliveries of grain to lower Mississippi ports are at 22,780 carloads, or about 2.5 million tons. That’s 117% higher than the three-year average.
Gartman said that he does not see the Army Corps’ stated policy of using passive protections such as parks and wetlands for towns and communities along the upper Mississippi changing, but that the Corps will look at all plans local and state governments come up with for future flood protection with an open mind.
“I don’t see that mindset ending because we want to look at all options providing the best value,” Gartman says. “There is a cost benefit that we have to look at. I see [passive protections such as wetlands] as one of the viable options that we consider when doing a cost-benefit analysis.”