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Valley Park’s Levee Facing New Height Of Criticism And Finger-Pointing

Bob Criss inside a flood gate at Valley Park. Outside the gate, MSD's sewage treatment plant was disabled by flood water. photo by Ursula Ruhl, Webster-Kirkwood Times.

Bob Criss inside a flood gate at Valley Park. Outside the gate, MSD’s sewage treatment plant was disabled by flood water. photos by Ursula Ruhl, Webster-Kirkwood Times.

Six months after a Meramec River flood left millions of dollars in damage to cities along its banks, the finger-pointing continues – with much of it directed at Valley Park’s levee.

Critics contend the levee is built beyond its authorized height. The extra height resulted in flood waters of unprecedented volume and speed, causing destruction in Fenton, Sunset Hills, Kirkwood, Arnold and more.

By Don Corrigan (South County Times)

“You can’t have a high levee and not be sending your problems somewhere else,” said Bob Criss, earth and planetary science professor at Washington University. “When you put these big levees up, there are always bigger problems for people on the other side.

“In the Valley Park case, the federal government spent $50 million to choose sides,” added Criss. “In choosing to protect Valley Park, did the Corps of Engineers follow the rules? Is property  protected within the levee bowl of such value as to justify the levee cost?”

Criss and several environmental groups in St. Louis are posing these questions – and more. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was filed to get specifications for levee construction and to see if it was built higher than was originally approved.

In a certified letter from the Army Corps of Engineers, the FOIA request from the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center was rebuffed. The request was denied under exemptions related to “Department of Defense critical infrastructure security information.”

Leeve #2 (1)Riding his bike atop the southern portion of Valley Park’s levee, Criss said he found the denial of the FOIA request to be “a blatant lack of transparency” – and to be laughable. He pointed at the small town of Valley Park below and questioned any real “security” concerns.

“The Communist Chinese can do satellite reconnaissance and get what they want from Valley Park,” said Criss. “They can certainly get the specs on the levee and its height. This is not about protecting our citizens, it’s about keeping information from our citizens.

“The issue that has to be resolved here is whether the levee was built beyond authorized heights,” added Criss. “If so – and I believe it was – no one is going to advocate taking down the levee a few feet. But there may be liability for compensation for damages to homeowners and businesses that went under water outside the levee.”

 

  Tired of Finger Pointing 

Gerald Marten, director of public works for Valley Park, said he is tired of finger pointing at his city – and its levee – over flood damage from earlier this year. Marten has nothing but praise for the Corps of Engineers levee.

“That levee was unbelievably important for us in December and January,” said Marten. “It protected businesses, government buildings, 250 residences and our schools. There are three levee gates and the flood water got up to within 6 inches of topping the flood gates at the railroad tracks.”

Marten scoffed at stories of houses lifted off their foundations in Eureka and carried all the way to the Meramec bridge in Fenton. Marten expressed doubt at assertions that the levee cost $50 million to protect property of far less value.

“I don’t know what the levee cost,” said Marten. “I do know that keeping the flood waters out is not just about levee costs and the worth of property; it’s about people’s lives.

“If you lose a school, you are talking about disrupting the lives of students  for months. If you have 250 homes under water, you are talking about lots of families having to find a new place to live. And what happens to the employees who are out of work after a business gets flooded?”

Marten added that the damage to the soccer park in Fenton or to the Olde Towne Fenton business district was regrettable, but not comparable to what Valley Park would have suffered without a levee. Marten also noted that other towns were free to apply for levee protection as Valley Park did years ago for flood protection.

“Overall, I think some bank erosion in some parks in Kirkwood is not comparable to what we would have seen in Valley Park without the levee,” said Marten. “And I have read credible reports that the levee may have raised the water downstream by three-tenths of a foot and not more.”

 

   Environmental Concerns

Kathleen Henry executive director with Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, said her group will continue its efforts to find out how high the Valley Park levee was authorized to be built.

“We have elected to file another FOIA request,” said Henry. “Our second request is more specific. And it gets at what we are interested in – what was authorized for that levee, and what was actually built.”

Criss said the information requested is vital to a court case that would point to responsibility for the unprecedented flooding and damage earlier this year on the Meramec River.

“I think this is an easy, winnable court battle, but the feds are denying access to important information, ” said Criss. “The  information will show that rules weren’t followed. Keeping people accountable is what this is all about.”

On his recent levee bike ride, Criss steered his way down the levee and crossed Cal Hedrick Way to Meramec Landing Park. Far down the park’s boat ramp, the Meramec River flowed quietly — yards away from the base of a flood stage gauge in the park.

“So, how high was this record water level in the flood?” asked Criss. “The USGS gauge here in the park recorded a peak level of 44.11 feet. The gauge datum is 392.92 feet relative to sea level, so the level at the gauge was 437.03 feet, which was several feet below the Valley Park levee top.

“Everything I have read indicates that the Valley Park levee was authorized to be built to 3 feet above the regulatory base flood level  for a ‘100-year’ flood, which in this area varies from 431 to 429 feet, from west to east proximal to the levee,” explained Criss. “So, in the vicinity of the Valley Park gauge, the levee top should have been about 433 feet.”

Water from the flood would have topped the current Valley Park levee by 3 or 4 feet had it been built to the height at which it was authorized to be built, according to Criss’s calculations.

“Draw your own conclusions, but I see scofflaws who fully understand that high levees displace water on others,” Criss said.

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3 responses to “Valley Park’s Levee Facing New Height Of Criticism And Finger-Pointing

  1. Thank you to Dr. Criss and Don Corrigan for squarely facing issues that have been swept under the rug. Even as the flood of December 2015 made international news, an astonishing lack of local attention has only invited more and worse river problems. Please continue to bring this important story to the public and promote responsible river management, lest the beautiful Meramec end up channeled like River Des Peres.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ditto. Don Corrigan has emerged as the environmental journalist in Saint Louis I trust the most, and I really value your work. Keep going.

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  3. To Mr. Gerald Marten regarding the regrettable loss of businesses in Olde Towne Fenton, I was one of those businesses. My primary care medical practice had served the community for 16 years. Literally thousands of people lost access to their doctor, and my three employees plus myself all lost our jobs. The devastation was overwhelming physically, financially, and emotionally.
    Where was the community spirit? No one from Valley Park came by to help in the aftermath. There was no government assistance of any kind provided, not city, state, or federal. I was responsible for securing thousands of patient files that had spent days in the sewage contaminated flood water. That meant that I had to carry those wet, heavy, moldy charts out of the building and to a secure location for a very costly disposal.
    That you dismiss this kind of loss as “regrettable” indicates to me that you have no personal knowledge of the Olde Towne Fenton businesses impacted by the December 30, 2015 flood. The losses were more than regrettable. These losses were felt by the larger St. Louis community too. Indeed, even in Valley Park there were people without a doctor or a dentist. Mortgages and closings on homes, maybe even one of those 250 homes saved by the Valley Park levee were delayed. I would not be surprised if more people’s lives were affected by the flooded businesses than the number of students attending Valley Park schools.
    Mr. Marten I do not write this to point a finger at you. I write this to remind us all that we are all our brothers keeper. We are also the stewards of our planet. I was in opposition to the Valley Park levee. I would have opposed a levee in Fenton too. It is easier to move people than to change the course of a river. When people are affected by calamity, rather than circle the wagons we should extend our hands in help. We are all a part of a larger community than our home towns. Those of us who live and work by a river are connected by that river, no matter how many river miles may separate us. We should all treat each other, and the river, with respect and dignity.

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