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Progress

May 5th, 2014

 

The path toward building the improvements to area levee systems has been more difficult and taken longer than we might have imagined, but our current schedule and cost estimate for the project keeps the achievement of our fundamental goals within reach – to meet FEMA flood protection standards by the year 2015 using only the money coming from the dedicated FPD sales tax.  We have completed our first small construction project, mainly maintenance work, and have six other projects with an estimated cost of almost $39 million currently under construction.

The Council is well-positioned to complete the project without additional borrowing, leaving the the Council with additional financial capacity for future maintenance and capital improvements.  This fortuitous conclusion results from several key factors, including continuous efforts to reduce construction costs through design, good competition in the bidding process, and stretching out the project schedule to delay expenditures.  However the latter factor was not by design and, while helpful from a financial standpoint, leaves little “float” in the schedule to account for weather and other delays in construction.  Our current schedule indicates that completion of the project in 2015 is doable but with little or no room for schedule slippage.  Issues such as easement obtainment and Corps of Engineers review process are time consuming and challenging.


Council Completes First Construction Project

April 16th, 2013

On April 23, 2012 the Council issued the first invitation to bid on construction work.  The work involved levee system improvements in the Metro East Sanitary District,  including removal and replacement of damaged pipe, removal of a pipe obstruction and cleaning, slip lining, and CIPP pipe rehabilitation at two locations.  Noeth Excavating Systems of Collinsville, IL successfully completed the small (but for us, significant) project this month.


Council Responds to Comments on the Environmental Assessment for the Levee Improvement Project

April 16th, 2013

On January 20, 2012, the Corps of Engineers released for public comment its Environmental Assessment and Draft Finding of No Significant Impact for the levee improvement project covering all of the levee systems in the region.  While typically required for projects that are built with federal funding, and the Council’s project is entirely funded with local money, the Corps determined that the EA was necessary since it was required for their signoff (the “Section 408” review) on the project and because the local 100- year project contributes to the longer-term federal project to achieve the 500-year level of protection.   There were were a large number of comments received during the comment period, most of them positive.  However, there were a number of commenters, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Bottom Conservancy, that noted some concerns with elements of the project design as well as some procedural issues.  On April 9, the Council responded to those concerns in writing to the Corps of Engineers.  Briefly, we feel that we have fully and effectively responded to the issues that were raised by the various commenters and we hope that the Corps will issue a final Finding of No Significant Impact in the near future.

 

 


Corps of Engineers Releases Plan for Underseepage Control for Mel Price Locks and Dam

April 5th, 2013

The Corps of Engineers has released its long-awaited plan for correcting a serious uncontrolled underseepage problem in the vicinity of the Mel Price Locks and Dam.  This was a problem uncovered by the Corps in July 2009.   A report outlining the plan, conceptual design, and cost estimate (termed a Limited Reevaluation Report in Corps parlance) can be downloaded here.  When the Corps built the new locks and dam two miles downstream of the old structure, it raised the navigation pool, which increased pressures on the existing levee and resulted in water and foundation material “tunnelling” under the levee during high water events.  This situation, if not corrected, could result in the failure of the levee and the loss of the navigation pool.  Aside from the possibility of significant flooding, commerce on the Mississippi River would be interrupted for a year or more, with economic losses that the Corps estimates at more than $1 billion.

The Corps is proposing to build a cutoff wall through the existing levee and additional relief wells to fix the problem.  The cost of this project is estimated at $31.8 million in April 2011 dollars.  The actual cost of the project, including inflation, will likely be higher, depending on when the Federal government appropriates funding for the project.  Because this problem resulted from the design and construction of the locks and dam by the Corps of Engineers, the entire cost of the project will be paid by the Federal Government.

Until such time as the long-term improvements outlined in the Corps’ plan can be funded and built, the Corps has in place a series of interim measures that can be implemented during high water events.  Unfortunately, this potentially “weak link” in the levee system could affect the Council’s ability to certify the system as meeting Federal Emergency Management Agency standards.  We will be working with the Corps to make the best of this situation and to outline the most effective plan to assure that FEMA standards will be met in time for completion of the remaining levee system improvements sometime in 2015.


Corps of Engineers Reports to FPD Council Board of Directors 2.2012

April 5th, 2013

The FPD Council Board of Directors held its regular meeting on February 15, 2011.  At the meeting, Col. Christopher Hall, Commander of the St. Louis District of the Corps of Engineers provided a presentation on the Corps’ role in the working with the Council to improve flood protection in the area.  He discussed the approach that the Corps will be taking in carrying out the “Section 408” review of the project so that he can provide the required permission for the Council to make alterations to the levee system.  During the meeting, Col. Hall delivered the long-promised Review Plan to the Council’s Board. Col. Hall also made some general observations about the current project design submitted by the Council’s consultant, AMEC Environment and Infrastructure.   Also during his presentation he reiterated the position of the Corps that they will not “certify” any levees that the Corps owns or controls, such as the Chain of Rocks levee.  Certification is an essential step in meeting FEMA levee safety requirements for the purposes of risk assessment for flood insurance.

Members of the Council’s Board expressed their deep concern about the Corps’ ability to maintain the Council’s schedule, citing the evidence of the Review Plan delivered more than 7 months after it was promised.  They also voiced their frustration about the Corps’ unwillingness to certify their own levees, requiring the Council to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to do that work.  Later on the agenda, the Board reluctantly committed $155,000 to perform the initial inspection of the Chain of Rocks levee and the Mel Price reach of the Wood River levee.

Les Sterman, staff for the Council, discussed the frustration of the Corps withholding essential information as a matter of policy.  This lack of cooperative communication simply wastes time and money.


FEMA’s Proposal for Remapping Flood Hazard Areas

November 20th, 2012

In early December 2011, FEMA issued a Notice of Proposed Levee Analysis and Mapping Procedures in response to a request by Congress to stop the practice of treating areas behind de-accredited levees as if there was no flood protection at all, commonly known as the “without levees” approach.  That practice had the impact of exaggerating flood risk, especially in areas like ours, where the levee system has historically provided reliable  protection from flooding.  In March, 2011 FEMA agreed to reconsider their approach and On Dember 9, 2011 issued a Notice of a proposed set of procedures to recognize existing de-accredited levees.  We submitted the comments on the Notice yesterday to FEMA.

At this point, these proposed procedures would not apply to us, since our levees are not (yet) de-accredited, despite FEMA’s threats dating back to 2007 to do so.  Should our levees be de-accredited, the proposed procedures would provide very little relief from the impact of that action.  While it is possible that we might be able to exclude some small areas in our region from the mandatory flood insurance requirement, FEMA would still label such areas as having undetermined risk, a label that does little to relieve the uncertainty that undermines our local economy and discourages investment in the communities of the American Bottom.

Our primary problem all along has been the flawed process (both analytical and administrative) by which FEMA makes decisions to de-accredit levees in the first place.  The proposed new procedures do nothing to affect the de-accreditation process.

The following excerpts summarize our comments on the FEMA Notice.  A copy of our full commentary can be found here. 

“In general, the Procedures represent an attempt to provide some very limited relief to a community protected by a de‐accredited levee system. Unfortunately, the Procedures represent an add‐on to an already flawed analytical and administrative process leading to de‐accreditation. The simple fact is that we need better information and good analysis from the outset to justify the truly critical de‐accreditation decision and the flood insurance rate maps that result from that decision. Simply producing digital maps that have the appearance of technical accuracy has not proven credible, leading to continuing disputes (including the widespread objection to the “without levee” approach that led to the development of the Procedures) and damaging FEMA’s legitimate interests in better informing the public about flood risk. The proposed Procedures are simply a way of rationalizing the flaws in the existing process. Further, they do not resolve the continuing concern of quantifying flood risk for the purpose of establishing a reasoned actuarial and analytical basis for flood insurance rates. 

One of the goals of this FEMA document was to provide a “more robust analysis and mapping procedure” to accurately identify flood risks. We certainly appreciate the difficulty in achieving that ambitious and laudable goal. Unfortunately, in the end it appears that the Procedures do little more than create the illusion of precision and sophistication, without providing any better understanding of risk or more accuracy in the depictions of SFHAs on flood insurance rate maps. Clearly, the entire process of evaluating the flood protection provided by levee systems and the consequent mapping of flood risk will be a long‐term and evolving process requiring far more time and effort than was provided to develop the subject Procedures. FEMA needs to closely examine whether adding on these Procedures to an existing process that is, by all accounts, flawed and in need of reform will further the public interest. Rather, the effort should be devoted to resolving the underlying problems that have caused Congress and the public such great concern.”



Permits and the Corps of Engineers

November 20th, 2012

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has played a substantial role in the construction and regulation of levee systems in our area.  The Corps designed and built area levees, mainly during the 1940s and 1950s.  In later years, the Corps has invested in rehabilitation and rebuilding aging parts of those systems.  More recently, the Corps has determined that the original design was likely not adequate to protect the area from a 500-year flood, the level of protection authorized by Congress.  This conclusion in turn led the Federal Emergency Management Agency to announce the “de-accreditation” of the levee systems, signaling their belief that the area lacked protection from a 100-year flood.  While the Corps has recognized their partial responsibility to correct those design deficiencies they cannot do so without appropriations from Congress and a substantial financial contribution from the local area.  Safety and economic concerns have made the correction of design deficiencies an urgent matter.

We have concluded that the Corps is not in a position to act quickly enough to address our public safety and economic needs.  In fact, they have suggested that it will literally take several decades for them to address the problem brought about by their own deficient designs.  We have also determined that the tortuous project development and management processes used by the Corps contribute to substantially higher costs – perhaps as much as double the costs of a non-federal or private entity.    All of this has led to our decision to make the improvements to the levee system to achieve FEMA accreditation without Corps financial participation.

Yet the Corps continues to play a significant role in the project.  Because our levee systems were built with federal funds and the Corps continues to have a role in emergency response and repair of those systems, the agency must issue various permits and permissions to allow us to make planned improvements.  Perhaps the most discussed of those permissions is based on the authority granted to the Corps under Section 408 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899.  Section 408 of the Act provides for approval by the Secretary of the Army to make alterations to the levee system “when in the judgment of the Secretary such occupation or use will not be injurious to the public interest and will not impair the usefulness of such work.”  As other areas around the country are finding, satisfaction of this seemingly straightforward “do no harm” requirement has resulted in lengthy and costly delays to local project sponsors, nightmarish technical disputes, and project costs that are spiraling out of sight.  We cannot allow that to happen here.

We have asked the Corps to tell us how they will perform the technical review of our project and to show how their review will be consistent with the simple requirement of the law.  The Corps is now generally taken the position that in order to grant permission, a local project sponsor must essentially design the project in accordance with Corps assumptions, methods and procedures.  In other words “the only way that we’ll sign off on the project is if you do it exactly like we would do.”  That would involve a lengthy and costly multi-layered review and approval process that strays a very long way from the “do no harm” standard of review that a plain-English reading of the law would require.  Following the Corps’ direction could add two years or more to the project schedule and tens of millions of dollars to its cost.  Contrary to the Corps’ stated goal of reducing risk to the public, the delays and cost increases could actually threaten the entire project and put the public at risk for many years.

We believe that the Corps has a useful role to play in performing a common-sense technical review of the project.   In fact, that review has been ongoing throughout the design of the project.  We certainly want to comply with the law.  What we cannot agree to are requirements that come not from the law or any regulation, but from processes that are conceived solely by the Corps that add no value to the project and have little to do with any federal interest.


The Court Decision

November 1st, 2011

The action taken on August 1, 2011 by the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Illinois to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the Council and a number of other plaintiffs against FEMA has a variety of implications that may not all be obvious.  Among the most clear conclusions expressed by Judge  J. Phil Gilbert was that because FEMA had recently acknowledged that they were reassessing the methods used to portray areas behind levees on flood insurance rate maps (FIRMs) the objective of the lawsuit (to invalidate the preliminary FIRMs issued in July 2009) had already been achieved.  He therefore declared that the case was moot.  He further ruled that because FEMA had not issued a formal letter of determination and had not attempted to adopt the preliminary maps the complaint was not “ripe” for us to pursue.  As a matter of law, he dismissed the case.  However, it was his remarks made in the memorandum announcing the decision that were most meaningful.  In those remarks he expressed great frustration with FEMA for not being forthright in their communication and decision-making process.  In fact, he felt compelled to announce himself that “the levees of the American Bottoms are accredited and have been accredited at all times relevant to this lawsuit.”  Despite repeated requests made by the judge during the hearing a couple of weeks earlier, FEMA refused to rescind either the official letter announcing the de-accreditation of area levees, or the preliminary FIRMs, despite the agency’s insistence during the hearing that those documents are no longer relevant.  The judge’s frustration was clearly evident and he expressed that frustration emphatically in his ruling.

So what does all this mean?  Is FEMA starting the mapping process all over?  Does the 2007 announcement simply vanish? Was this all a bad dream?

We don’t know all the answers right now, but we can be certain of the following:

1. The mapping process will continue.  FEMA has been charged by Congress with modernizing FIRMs throughout the country to better inform property owners of flood risk and to provide a basis for underwriting flood insurance.  This is an important and worthwhile effort, and while FEMA has been challenged to do the job better, it will not stop.

2. FEMA is reconsidering the way that areas behind levees (particularly de-accredited levees) are mapped.  Members of Congress have called on the agency to end the practice of assuming that de-accredited levees don’t exist at all as the basis for mapping flood risks.  The agency is now working to develop a method to implement that request by Congress and will publish a report in the next couple of months describing their findings.  We don’t know if their recommendation will produce a significant change in the maps issued in 2009, or something far less meaningful, like a change in the legend or description.

3. At some point FEMA will issue new preliminary FIRMs.  We don’t know when that will happen and FEMA will not provide any schedule for the mapping process in our area.

4. Whatever the rhetoric, the impact of the announcement made in 2007 by FEMA to de-accredit our levee systems will be felt for a long time.  Confidence in flood protection, something long taken for granted here, has been badly damaged.  Private insurers and corporate risk management departments are closely examining flood risks in our area.  Insurance rates in the private flood insurance market are going up.  Corporate locational decisions are affected.

In the end, neither Judge Gilbert’s incisive comments or FEMA’s recent backtracking, while validating much of our frustration about the mapping process, should be taken as a free pass.  We still have the obligation to demonstrate to FEMA that our levee systems meet modern design standards and will offer a high level of flood protection.  Until we do that, the threat to the area economy remains.


FEMA Acknowledges that 2007 Decision to De-Accredit Area Levee Systems is “no longer operative.”

November 1st, 2011

On August  1, 2011 a Federal Judge dismissed the lawsuit filed by Metro East communities challenging levee de-accreditation after the defendant, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, announced in open court that it had abandoned its proposal to de-accredit the Metro East levee systems.  Judge J. Phil Gilbert ruled that the lawsuit was now moot, since FEMA insisted that the preliminary flood insurance rate maps no longer had any official status, now that the agency had agreed to reconsider the methods by which the maps are drawn.  This is a good outcome for our area, but does not mean that FEMA will not issue new maps in the future.  The agency has refused to provide any timetable for issuance of new maps and has not yet determined the methods that they will use to determine levee accreditation or how areas behind de-accredited levees will be shown on those maps.   It does appear that this announcement by FEMA and decision by Judge Gilbert will mean another, perhaps substantial, delay before new maps are issued.  FEMA has also indicated that there will be a new administrative appeal process once new maps are produced.   Everything considered, this is a good outcome for us because it allows added time to further improve the levee system — improvements that will eliminate all doubt about the safety and future accreditation of Metro East levee systems.

A copy of Judge Gilbert’s memorandum and order dismissing the lawsuit is available here, along with our statement on the outcome of the lawsuit.  All other major documents related to the lawsuit can be found  in the document center under FEMA Lawsuit Documents.


Project Implementation Plan Becomes Official

November 1st, 2011

At its meeting on July 20, the Flood Prevention District Council Board of Directors adopted a Project Implementation Plan for area flood protection improvements.  The adoption of this plan caps a two year planning and design process to determine how best to improve flood protection, how to pay for those improvements and when they can be done.  This is an important milestone in the project, because it brings together for the first time the design, cost estimate, financing plan and schedule for the project.  It is a comprehensive report that will serve as a guidebook for carrying out the project over the next 5 year period.  The report will be subject to change over time as the design and cost estimate are further refined in the months ahead.  It should, however, provide some assurance to the citizens and businesses of the region who have faced great uncertainty since August 2007, when FEMA first announced that the levee systems in Metro-East would be de-accredited.  We are cautiously optimistic that construction will be substantially complete in 2014 with full certification and accreditation of the levee system done in 2015.

While the Council presses ahead with improvements to the levee system, a number of affected local governments and citizens have filed suit against FEMA to overturn the decision to de-accredit area levee systems.  As we have learned over the last two years, FEMA took this extraordinary action with little or no scientific or technical information to demonstrate that the levees are indeed deficient.  The Council is also a plaintiff in this suit.  We strongly believe that FEMA acted without justification or due process and that the agency should withdraw their past actions. While we are committed to investing in flood protection and making the system more robust, we do not think the economic future of the area should be sacrificed on the basis of a faulty decision by FEMA.