GRAND TOWER – Residents of the Mississippi River community received more bad news last week regarding their broken levee, just months ahead of the coming flood season.
Hopes that a bond referendum passed by Jackson County voters in 1994 might be reactivated to help pay for repairs at the Grand Tower levee were dashed when officials learned federal law prohibits issuing bonds any longer than seven years after the referendum was approved.
“Devastating,” Mayor Mike Ellet said of the news.
The referendum sought $1.7 million in bonds for repairs at all levee systems in the county following the Great Flood of 1993. However, only about $50,000 had been issued within the first year after the referendum, county records show. Why more of the money was not pursued is not clear.
Roger Cavness, president of the Grand Tower Levee and Drainage District, a taxing body, said it is possible some work needed at the levee after the flood may have been paid for by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
However, the referendum did not specify damages caused by the flood.
Today, Grand Tower is looking at a price tag of $1.5 million to make all necessary repairs, including replacing a 60-inch pipe that collapsed in June as the Mississippi River neared record flood levels.
Most of the pipes in the system are beyond their 50-year lifespan and are in need of costly work, Cavness added.
“They are all in bad shape and can fail at any time,” Cavness said.
The levee, like several in Southern Illinois, is no longer eligible for financial help from the Corps of Engineers because of an unacceptable rating by the federal agency in 2011, leaving it to local officials to pay for repairs.
Cavness and others are working with some county board members for a possible new referendum, but the earliest it could be voted on is in the fall.
One board member, Emily Burke, is pushing for a referendum, but she worries about the levee withstanding another flood season. Burke is among those frustrated that more help is not available from federal sources.
Compounding her frustration is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant for $1 million coupled with matching funds to “protect, restore and enhance” 2,890 acres of waterfowl habitat in Southern Illinois.
Burke is not opposed to establishing wetlands, but she questions why funds are available for them when they are not when it comes to protecting people and their homes, she said.
“Ignoring this immediate, critical need to fix the lock is not just unfair, it’s short-sighted,” Burke said. “The cost of doing nothing will be more than economical, it will also have emotional consequences – maybe even lasting shame. Grand Tower is a symbol of our heritage.”
To help pay for repairs, Grand Tower residents and others have been holding fundraisers and to date have raised more than $25,000.
One of those is Shawnee High School teacher Jamie Nash-Mayberry, recognized for her work with students to advocate on behalf of levee systems around the school district.
She acknowledges the fundraisers are welcomed, but they won’t get the job done. She said residents are upset more federal and state help has not been forthcoming.
“It’s not one person that is neglecting it. It’s a handful of politicians completely. Since June, it seems nothing has been done,” she said.