Southwest Illinois Celebrates 100-Year Levee System Accreditation

On April 27, at a press conference at America’s Central Port in Granite City, Ill., leaders and officials of southwest Illinois celebrated the re-accreditation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency of the St. Louis Metro East’s levee and flood protection system to a 100-year-flood standard of flood protection.

“This means all five levee systems from Alton to Columbia have all been officially reaccredited by FEMA,” said Gary Hoelscher, president of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, who made the announcement. “This project was completed at less than half the initial cost estimates and 22 years ahead of projected schedules if federal funds only were utilized.”

On August 15, 2007, FEMA had announced its intention to de-accredit the 65-mile Metro East Sanitary District levee system protecting Illinois communities in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties, home to 156,000 residents and more than 4,000 businesses.

The region’s leadership recognized that extraordinary measures were necessary to protect this economic asset and the homes and livelihoods of a large portion of the region’s population. A new revenue source was created in 2008, and a regional organization, the Southwest Illinois Flood Prevention District Council, was formed to carry out an ambitious plan to secure the new FEMA accreditation levels and maintain a level of flood protection that has been in place for some 75 years. 

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In order to achieve the FEMA accreditation standards announced in 2007, additional infrastructure—including pump stations, gravity drains, relief wells, landside berms and cutoff walls—was needed to protect against under-seepage.

If the southwestern Illinois region had done nothing, property insurance premiums would have skyrocketed and placed a financial burden on businesses and residents in the region, making it nearly impossible to attract future development. A study conducted in 2010 found that a business producing $5 million in annual sales, with a mortgage on its $750,000 property, would face an additional insurance premium of $52,500 per year.

Developments like Gateway Commerce Center in Edwardsville, Gateway TradePort in Pontoon Beach, America’s Central Port in Granite City, Alton’s Center Business Park, the industrial corridor in East St. Louis and Cahokia and the freight partners and major manufacturers throughout the region would likely have halted further investment, possibly even relocated due to burdensome costs and financial strain.

Recognizing the urgency of this situation, regional leaders successfully sought authorization from the Illinois General Assembly to impose a 1/4 percent sales tax to pay for any necessary improvements to the levee system and created independent Flood Prevention Districts (FPDs) within each county with the tax-collecting authority. The FPD Council was formed by the three county FPDs as a joint venture to oversee the restoration of the Metro East to protect the lives, property and the economic vitality of the southwest Illinois region. The sales tax brought in $12 million annually, part of which was used as a match to federal funds.

Officials said the region is continuing to pursue levee system improvements to achieve the updated 500-year level standards. So far more than $119 million in local and federal money has been spent to improve the levee system, including 11 major construction projects totaling $74.7 million.

The system’s improvements were tested during the flood of 2019. It was noted during the press conference that there was no seepage through any of the levees at the time. Without the improvements, there would have been multiple failures in the levee system, Corps of Engineers officials said.

“The actions taken by our region are a textbook example of how local communities can take initiative on levee system improvements while working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to produce an optimum result,” according to a press release by American’s Central Port. “Above all we have proven [that] our three-county region can come together and act as one to ensure southwestern Illinois continues to grow and succeed.”