OLIVE BRANCH — When the rain wouldn’t quit earlier this month and the Mississippi continued to rise, Alexander County officials looked at what is left of the Len Small Levee and knew one thing — water was going to come through.
And it did.
Alexander County Engineer Jeff Denny said about a mile of the levee is gone as a result of last year’s flood in January. Denny said The New Year’s flood breached the levee, leaving the hole that water is currently moving through, damaging farms, homes and public roads.
Denny said it shouldn’t be this way. The county participates in Public Law 84-99, which is a rehabilitation program through the Army Corps of Engineers.
“If there’s a flood, you have damage to your levee system, they come in afterwards and make whatever repairs you need,” Denny said.
He said to even be considered for this program, which pays about 80 percent of the costs for repairs, the levee district has to make regular repairs and inspections, all of which are paid for through levee district funds. He said while they have made sure to meet these standards, the Corps still denied to help them make repairs to the Len Small Levee.
Denny said before any money is allocated, the project has to pass a cost benefit analysis. He said after the Corps surveys an area damaged by flooding, they have to come up with a score above 1. The Len Small levee and the surrounding area scored around 0.8 — just under the threshold to receive aid.
Denny and others in the county weren't pleased.
“It’s pretty frustrating," Denny said. "You go through these hoops and do all these things the Corps says and then when you really need their help they tell you, ‘You're out of luck.’”
He said typically there has not been a big issue in getting funding for repairs through PL 84-99. However, he suspects the size of the breach and the cost to repair it threw off the needed ratio.
The cost to repair the levee, Denny said, would come to $15 million, or nearly 200 times the yearly allotment the levee district receives from its tax base.
Alexander County Treasurer Jerry Smith said on 2015-payable 2016 tax records, the Len Small Levee District received about $74,005.
According to Jim Tafflinger, treasurer for the Len Small Levee District, this figure comes from the $3 per acre tax on property within the district. This rate is less than half, Tafflinger said, of the $7.50 that the East Cape Levee District to the north charges. He said the district may consider raising the rate to help offset the cost of repair, but no decisions have been made.
Smith said because the levee district is a private, taxable entity the county would likely not contribute to the repair effort.
This all leaves a question mark over the future of the Len Small Levee and its surrounding land and homes. Denny said the county has been working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Office of Water Resources on how to fix the levee and they have essentially designed a new levee that would be set back from the original, with its ends tying into the existing levee system.
However, one thing stands in its way.
“The problem we have now is, with the water flowing back through there, we don’t know what we are looking at as far as, like, additional scouring of the ground,” Denny said, adding that it could be weeks before the water recedes enough to know how much more damage was caused by this year’s flood. He said it could mean going back to the drawing board and struggling even more to find funding.
Tafflinger said part of the problem with PL 84-99 is its scoring system. He said the Army Corps looks at damage to utilities, roads and homes — but not farmland, which makes up most of the district.
He said there has been talk of getting out of the group all together, as Tafflinger said it doesn’t make sense to do all the work jumping through the Corps’ hoops to not get help in the end.
He said it may be up to levee district residents to fix the levee.
“It’s farmer built from the beginning,” he said.
In the past, Tafflinger said, the levee district has worked out a plan with local farmers to pay a percentage of the repair costs and reimburse for fuel in exchange for them repairing the levee with their own equipment. That reduces the cost of repairing the levee, especially when compared to what Tafflinger described as the “out of touch with reality,” estimates the Corps gives.
This plan, combined with low interest loans, Tafflinger said, may be the route they take this summer. However, he said, it is dependent on when grounds get planted and farmers have time to do it.
Denny said the hole in the levee flooded about 20,000 acres in Alexander County, which is far worse then had there been a proper levee in place, forcing residents and officials alike to realize the need to repair the wall.
“Everyone sees the effects now of not having a levee in place,” Denny said.
How this repair shapes up is still up in the air, though.
“We will just have to wait and see,” Tafflinger said.