It’s been 13 years since the Great Flood of ’93 caused widespread destruction along the upper Mississippi River. After the flood, there was talk of needing to expand the natural floodplain by eliminating levees that protect farmland. That didn’t happen. In fact, not much of anything has happened, but that doesn’t stop farmers from wondering if the government will buy their farms and turn them into natural areas designed to take the waters of the next big flood. Tom Weber reports:
It’s been 13 years since the Great Flood of ’93 caused widespread destruction along the
upper Mississippi Rivers. After the flood, there was talk of needing to expand the natural
flood plain by eliminating levees that protect farmland. That didn’t happen. In fact, not
much of anything has happened, but that doesn’t stop farmers from wondering if the
government will buy their farms and turn them into natural areas designed to take the
waters of the next big flood. Tom Weber reports:
For all the river talk in these parts, it’s actually kind of hard to see the water. Doug
Sondag’s farm is about about two miles from the river and his view to the west
is of the bluffs, on which Missouri towns, like Herculanium, sit.
“That’s Missouri bluffs. That’s Missouri bluffs, and to the north the bluffs that you see is Missouri.
We’re on a big bend here.”
Doug’s friend Ron Kuergeleis is visiting the farm today. Kuergeleis lost his home in the
’93 flood, but he still farms on the flood plain near Valmeyer, Illinois. The two also are
commissioners with the local levee district, which means they’re in charge of keeping the
local levee up-to-date so the river is kept away.
Today, though, they’re talking about the possibility of a new federal levee and something
called “Plan G.”
(Ron): “You’re talking quite a few farmers that would absolutely put them out of
business. You’re one of them, I’m one of them, and there’s – (Doug): “There are quite a few
more.” (Ron): “There are quite a few more.”
No one is going out of business any time soon, though. Plan G is something the Army
Corps of Engineers studied and decided wasn’t worth the money. It would have the
Corps spend billions building up bigger levees along the upper Mississippi to 500-year
levees: the highest levees the Corps builds.
Plan G also would create a huge storage district nearby. A storage district is a kind of
relief area where flood waters go to take strain off other levees. Corps engineer Richard
Astrack says design elements like these can help control flooding in other places:
“Now we have the capability that we didn’t have before to look at whole system to ensure
that actions taken at one location can impact another location.”
The Valmeyer storage district would require a new levee in the flood plain, which would
leave 10,000 acres of currently protected farmland unprotected and on the wrong side of
This all started a few years ago, when Congress told the Corps to study the entire Upper
Mississippi River, from Illinois’s southern tip to Minnesota, find out if the current levees
are good enough to reduce flood damage. If not, should there be some comprehensive plan to guide just which levees get built up and when? Such a study actually had never been done.
The Corps’ Richard Astrack says they looked at a lot of options, including that Plan G,
to see if any of them were worth the time and money. And it turns out, none of them is:
“None of the plans passed that test. Our draft report does not
recommend any systemic plan.”
And the Corps’s final report will probably recommend essentially doing nothing because
the current system does a good enough job of preventing flood damage. The Corps will
recommend updating, but not raising, current aging levees, and also creating some mini-
levees to protect roads that approach bridges.
But even with all the assurances that Valmeyer, Illinois is safe for now, farmers in the
bottomlands are worried that the federal government might one day force their children
or their grandchildren off their farms.
Ron Kuergeleis is a fourth generation farmer:
“We’re pretty much assured in our lifetime it ain’t gonna happen. But some of us got another
generation coming up and you don’t know. He claims, you know where you going to
come up with money, but if they want to come up with it, they’ll find it.”
The worries stem from the fact that Corps cannot, in all fairness, guarantee that such a
levee would never be built. Because setting aside some of the bottom lands for natural
flooding could protect big cities such as St. Louis, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee,
there’s concern that Congress might one day instruct the Corps of Engineers to buy out
So, while Valmeyer is not getting a new levee right now, the people here say they’ll keep
working to stay one step ahead to make sure it never happens.
For the Environment Report, I’m Tom Weber