It’s a system that sustains fish and wildlife, communities and commerce. It’s an integrated system where navigation, environmental stewardship, recreation and flood control all play a crucial role in its continued health and welfare.
But the river system, if not broken, is at least leaking. Just ask Sam Zumwalt, a Western Illinois farmer and drainage/levee commissioner and a veteran of major Mississippi River “flood fights” in 1993 and 2008.
It was the 1993 flood that destroyed the Village of Valmeyer when the levee protecting the town was overtopped. After the flood, and to avoid a similar fate, the original town was moved about 400 feet higher in the bluffs above the old Valmeyer.
In June 2008, more than 75,000 acres of Illinois farmland were flooded, and more than 30,000 acres remained under water from June to October.
Over the past two decades, Zumwalt and others have encountered numerous obstacles that have blocked effective flood prevention and control.
He is among those pushing Congress to approve a proposed comprehensive plan for the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
Under current policies, the Adams County farmer notes, “I could get a bike path down the top of my levee, but I can’t raise that levee six inches to protect ourselves.”
He suggests a comprehensive plan could help achieve that goal while protecting communities and promoting new jobs within the floodplain.
“It’s an overall plan for an entire river,” Zumwalt explains. “It takes into consideration the navigation, the recreation, the environment and flood control, and how it all fits together. The comprehensive plan allows for consistency and allows progress on the river.”
Illinois Farm Bureau leaders have spearheaded efforts aimed at obtaining more uniform, streamlined interstate flood prevention/flood-fighting capabilities, and they want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to have the lead role in future flood-fighting efforts.
Currently, individual states dictate how much levee repairs and improvements can increase area river levels, and those river levels determine the amount of flood fighting allowed within a region. The disparity between the different state standards can result in increased damage on one side of a swollen river. The river-level rate for Illinois is the most restrictive of the states bordering the Mississippi, making it and thus the Illinois River more susceptible to flooding.
Repairs are still needed in some areas after flooding in 2008, in part due to questions about who among participating state and federal agencies “has the dollars, who does the work and how the work gets done,” explains Rich Guebert Jr., Illinois Farm Bureau vice president and chair of the organization’s Floodplain Task Force.
Farmers and Illinois policymakers also continue to lobby Congress for funding necessary to build new state-of-the-art navigational locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers – initiatives approved in 2007, but since provided only meager budget support.
New locks, twice the size of existing structures, not only would reduce Mississippi/Illinois shipping delays that can raise grain and food prices and consumer energy and construction costs, the new construction also would open existing 600-foot locks to recreational traffic “without having to tie up the big locks,” Zumwalt says.
Zumwalt, who enjoys fishing with his son, Joe, also sees the need to revise federal regulations that have slowed dredging of silt from “backwaters” outside major commercial river channels. Today, dredged materials must be shipped downstream; he believes allowing local agencies to use that silt to beef up levees would encourage recreational/tourism activity while bolstering flood protections.
“We’ve been advocating this type of thing for 30 years,” Zumwalt says.