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.”
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.”
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.