By the middle of this past week, most residents of Southern Illinois talked about flooding in the past tense.
Granted, there was still standing water in fields near the Big Muddy River or near creeks flowing into the Ohio River.
But, for residents of Alexander County, flooding was still an issue in the present tense.
The waters pouring through the gap in the Len Small Levee south of Olive Branch still formed rapids while flowing over the remnants of county roads. An Alexander County truck overturned near the levee when roiling floodwaters burrowed through the substrate of the Miller City Blacktop.
Travel in low-lying areas of the county remained extremely difficult. Many roads were barricaded. Others were impassable because floodwaters peeled oil and chips off roadbeds much like a banana.
In the meantime, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers barges unloaded rock into the levee breech, hoping to stem the flow of rushing water. Not to minimize the attempt, but when compared to acres of water inundated by the runaway Mississippi River, the barges of rock looked paltry.
The juxtaposition begs a pressing question: What does the federal government plan to do with the levee?
At this point, no one seems to know. And if somebody does know, they’re not talking — and there are suspicions that the levee, at least in its current configuration, will never be rebuilt.
Whatever happens, it is important that residents of Alexander County and the government entities serving the region get an answer — and get an answer soon. The fate of homes, infrastructure and maybe even the integrity of Horseshoe Lake State Park — an iconic and idyllic highlight of Southern Illinois — depends on the answer.
We’re not suggesting federal agencies make a hasty decision. The fate of the levee will have far-reaching economic, social and environmental impacts. It is a multi-faceted issue that deserves careful consideration.
At the same time, the clock is ticking. This needs to be a front-burner issue. And, it’s not like these issues are new. We’ve known the Len Small Levee has been in trouble for some time.
Barring more heavy rainfall, the waters will be receding soon. But, the tried and true post-flood repairs may no longer be the best option. The gap in the levee has changed the nature of flooding in Alexander County.
There are literally miles of road that will need to be patched and resurfaced. There are thousands of acres of farmland that need to be planted, and in some cases, replanted. The cost to repair the roads alone will be astronomical.
In the past, the overflow of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers blanketed the low-lying land with a somewhat benign layer of water. The situation is different since the Len Small Levee was breeched in winter of 2016.
The water now pours through the gap in the levee with a vengeance, something needs to be done to slow that down.
It is the roaring water that peels the asphalt from roadways, erodes the substrates of more roads, scours valuable topsoil from prime farmland and possibly threatens the integrity of the spillway that helps form the 2,400-acre Horseshoe Lake.
Local officials can prepare for flooding if they know what to expect. Before the levee was compromised, residents and officials understood what areas to protect, and what areas would be inundated despite their best efforts. The last two floods have made that information moot.
And, the last several years have shown that floods can no longer be predicted by the calendar. They can occur in spring, summer or winter. There is no guarantee, or even a strong likelihood that the floodwaters won’t return for another 12 months, hence the urgency.
If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides to maintain the status quo, it will affect decisions regarding which roads to repair and how to repair them. It will dictate to farmers which fields are viable, and which should remain fallow.
Those options would change dramatically if the Corps opted to rebuild or restructure the levee.
The bottom line, there are important federal decisions that need to be made in the near future. Unfortunately, local officials cannot decide on a best course of action until they know the fate of the levee.