Too-High Illinois Levee Flooding Missouri Homes

Missouri landowners and environmentalists are urging a federal agency to sanction a levee district on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, arguing that the earthen barrier has been built above its authorized height, worsening flooding for its neighbors.

Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, a river conservation organization based in St. Louis, sent a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in October urging the agency to take action if the Sny Island Levee District in Illinois fails to reduce its levee height. FEMA didn’t respond to the alliance but told The Associated Press it is working to resolve the issue.

Missouri residents have complained for years that the Sny has been built several feet too high in some spots. The 60-mile (96.5-kilometer) system is north of St. Louis and protects roughly 115,000 acres of fertile Illinois farmland.

The upper Mississippi River is lined with levees that protect towns, businesses and hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land. But in times of flooding, water that would naturally flow over a flood plain is boxed out and forced elsewhere. Such redirecting of floodwater is especially concerning given the increasing volatility of the river, which has seen damaging flooding far more frequently in recent decades.

“These levees have a maximum height because in some instances they’re supposed to be topped,” said David Stokes, executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. “You don’t want to sacrifice a city to keep the farmland dry.”

A study by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2017 found that 40 percent of the 205 miles (330 kilometers) of levees from central Iowa to St. Louis were built above their authorized heights. Missouri, Iowa and Illinois all had levees in violation.

The Sny is the longest of those systems and, some Missouri residents say, the biggest violator. The Corps has said the Sny is up to 4 feet (1.2 meters) above authorized levels in some spots.

In January 2016, FEMA’s Mitigation Division asked leaders of the three Illinois counties responsible for the Sny – Pike, Calhoun and Adams counties – to show permits proving that raising the levee was authorized.

Three years later, it remains unclear if any permits were provided.

Mike Reed, superintendent of the Sny district, said in an email to The Associated Press that the levee district is working with FEMA “to clear up questions that may remain as to the authorized levee elevation.”

FEMA spokeswoman Cassie Ringsdorf said in an email that the agency “has been working with the state of Illinois and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine the best course of action to address those issues.”

In the Oct. 8 letter to FEMA Mitigation Division Director Mary Beth Caruso, Stokes urged FEMA to cut off availability of insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program to Illinois property owners behind the Sny unless the levee height is reduced.

“It’s time to crack down,” he said.

Local farmer Nancy Guyton agreed. Guyton and her husband grow corn and soybeans on 1,500 acres in the flood plain of Pike County, Missouri, directly across from the Sny. She said the too-tall Illinois levee means more significant damage to the family farm as the murky and often toxic water sticks around longer during a flood.

“It’s just a real mess and FEMA can do something about it,” Guyton said. “They’re dragging their heels. They should have taken care of this matter several years ago.”