MILLER CITY — Overnight Wednesday, six connected barges came loose from their tugboat and were sucked through the breach in the Len Small levee in Alexander County.
The current pushed the barges out over flooded farmland near Miller City, said Alexander County Engineer Jeff Denny, where they came to rest apparently after colliding with an irrigation system.
Two similar accidents had been narrowly avoided in the past month, Denny said, because those tugboats had engines strong enough to escape the water flowing into the ¾-mile-wide hole in the levee.
This time, no such luck.
There were no injuries nor damage to barges, which were all empty, said Kent Furlong, owner of Hines Furlong Line, the barge company.
However, the barges appear to have taken out power lines in their path across the flooded fields, Denny said.
As Hines Furlong worked to remove the vessels on Wednesday, county leaders said the incident is a reminder of the need to fix the levee, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ignored for several years.
The Len Small Levee is located between Mississippi River mile marker 21 and mile marker 35 in far southern Alexander County, near an area of farmland known as Dogtooth Bend.
It has failed repeatedly over the last decade. In January 2011, flooding left “a 5,000-foot breach,” according to Professor Kenneth Olson, of the University of Illinois.
The levee was repaired that year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working together with local farmers, only to breach again in a different location in 2016.
At that time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to fix the hole, saying the economic losses on the flooded land were not great enough to justify the projected $16 million cost of fixing the levee.
Instead, the federal agency opted for a stopgap, Denny said, twice laying thousands of pounds of rock, known as rip-rap, to strengthen the bottom of the breached area and the levee walls, in order to prevent further erosion.
But with the prolonged flooding of 2019, residents of the area report the ¾-mile-hole in the levee continues to grow.
“I would love to know how many millions they’ve spent, and now we’re pretty much back to square one,” Denny said.
The true extent of this year’s damage won’t be clear until floodwaters recede from the estimated 25,000 acres of farmland flooded because of the failing levee, Denny said.
But regardless, local officials will continue to make the same request, Denny said: fill the hole.
"We are looking at the consequences of federal policy failing to reflect the critical role that levees play beyond flood prevention, such as maintaining safe commercial navigation. This makes no sense and it’s costing Southern Illinois dearly,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Bost on Wednesday.
To help the levee get patched, Bost introduced a provision in the Water Resources Development Act, approved by the U.S. House last September, that allows local sponsors to pay the difference when the costs of a levee repair are deemed to be financially greater than the flood protection benefits.
However, the provision’s implementation on the Len Small has been stalled by differences in the legal interpretation of the law between the congressional lawyers who wrote it and the Corps of Engineers, Denny said.
“The Corps understands it to mean local entities can make up the difference only with cash contributions,” Denny said, which would require Alexander County to put up over $3 million on the $16 million job. “But the intention of the law was to allow us to pay with work in kind.”
In the past, when the Corps repaired the levee, the county was asked to cover 20% of project costs, Denny said, and did so via work in kind, with many farmers giving their time and equipment to help with construction.
In the 2011 repairs, local farmers did about 50% of the work, he estimated.
Alexander County residents hoped to bear a greater burden of labor, under Bost’s proposal, to get the USACE to sign on to the new repairs.
But for now that possibility remains a “back and forth” discussion at the federal level, Denny said, and no USACE work is expected on the levee.
The Corps of Engineers did not respond Wednesday to questions about its position on the levee.
Meanwhile, the flood fight continues in the nearby villages of East Cape Girardeau and McClure.
On Wednesday, the Illinois Department of Transportation’s announced the closure of Illinois 146, which runs west from East Cape to Cape Girardeau, over the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge.
The road, which is covered by 6 or more inches of water in spots, had been closed to low vehicles, but open to trucks and SUV’s, according to Jerry Held, Alexander County Emergency Management Agency assistant coordinator.
Now, only emergency vehicles and government vehicles will be allowed access, Held said.
Sandbagging continues in the communities of East Cape and McClure, and residents of East Cape are still advised to prepare for voluntary evacuation if necessary.
From Springfield, Gov. J.B. Pritzker sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Wednesday asking him to issue a disaster declaration for Illinois farmers. The declaration would make new federal resources available to those whose planting season was affected by flooding and heavy rainfall.
“For months, our state has been battling historic flooding, causing untold damage to homes, businesses, and farms across Illinois,” Pritzker said. “For our farmers, this has meant delaying, reducing, or even eliminating planting, hurting a core state industry and impacting working families across Illinois. While the state will continue to do everything we can to help, a Secretarial Disaster Declaration will provide much needed aid to impacted farmers in Illinois and I am hopeful the USDA will make this declaration.”