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Government, Politics & Issues

U.S. House panel adds $1 billion for levee, flood-project repairs

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2011 - WASHINGTON - The House Appropriations Committee added nearly $590 million to a spending bill Wednesday for repairing damaged levees and other flood-control structures in the vast Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T) system on the lower Mississippi.

That sum was part of more than $1 billion in extra funding for levee and other flood-damage repair nationwide, with the details on spending priorities to be left to the Army Corps of Engineers after it assesses damages related to this spring flooding on the Mississippi, the ongoing flooding along the Missouri River and other floods.

While Wednesday's committee action represents only an early step in the long appropriations process, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, said she expected that the extra funds for the Corps would -- if approved -- help pay for the repair or restructuring of the Birds Point levee in southeastern Missouri, which was intentionally breached by the Corps to divert floodwaters from Cairo, Ill.

The MR&T funding is part of an amendment -- sponsored Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., who chairs the panel's energy and water subcommittee -- that added over $1 billion in "emergency funding" to the Corps "to repair damage caused by recent storms and floods and to prepare for future disaster events." Emerson, who chairs another appropriations subcommittee, also pressed for the increase and would have offered a similar measure if necessary.

Under the committee-approved plan, the extra Corps funds would be offset by eliminating as yet unspent high-speed rail funding  approved as part of the 2010 economic "stimulus" bill. The Corps funding was included in the wider, $30 billion House Energy and Water Appropriations Act. It will be voted on later by the full House, but its fate is uncertain in the Senate, which will develop a parallel spending bill. Among the members of the Senate Appropriations panel is U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Emerson, whose district includes the 130,000-acre Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, said in a statement Wednesday that she anticipated that the Corps would use some of the anticipated funds to repair the Birds Point levee. The Mississippi is no longer spilling through the breached levee into the floodway, but local landowners want assurances that their farms and houses won't be flooded again if the river rises later this year.

"Our levees have suffered extensive damage," Emerson said. "At Birds Point and in the New Madrid Floodway, the need for repairs and reconstruction is acute and immediate. These funds are an investment in the safety of our families, homes, businesses and communities."

Last week, the Corps' chief river engineer visited the Bootheel floodway to survey the damage and check river levels. He echoed recent comments by the commander of the Corps' Memphis District that the goal was to reset or rebuild the Birds Point levee by next March 1. Emerson and Missouri's U.S. senators have called that date unacceptable and are pushing for quicker action.

"Until just last week, thousands of cubic feet of the Mississippi River were flowing through the Birds Point levee every second," Emerson said in a statement. "Some fields are buried under several feet of sand. Farmers are assuming a serious risk by putting in a crop with no flood protection, but they have to try. The alternative is to try to absorb the shock of total losses on their crops for the year."

Even if the emergency funds for levee repair are left intact by the full House and the Senate, the Energy and Water Appropriations bill's funding would not be available until Oct. 1. In the meantime, Emerson and other U.S. House members who represent districts along the lower Mississippi -- including Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville -- have urged the Office of Management and Budget to request an emergency supplemental funding bill to speed repair money to the Corps before October.

Emerson said Wednesday that any extra funding would "give the Corps fewer reasons to delay the site studies, repair and construction of Mississippi River levees in several states. The entire system has been damaged, but some places need more immediate attention."

Despite the breaching of the Birds Point levee and the deploying of all major flood-control options on the MR&T system, the Corps says that this spring's flood -- now considered the flood of record for most points on the lower Mississippi -- displaced an estimated 10,000 people, caused one death and inundated 6.8 million acres between Cape Girardeau and southern Louisiana.

Metro East Levee Plan Released

In other levee-related news, the flood prevention agency that is working to bolster about 74 miles of levees along the Mississippi River in the Metro East region released a draft plan Wednesday. The region stretches from Alton to Columbia, Ill.

Under that five-year proposal by the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council, it would cost an estimated $161 million to bring the levee systems in St. Claire, Madison and Monroe counties up to federal standards and erase any doubts about flood insurance eligibility for area residents and businesses. The Corps' federal funds for levee repair are not likely to be a factor in the Metro East plan.

According to the plan, which was released at a meeting of the flood prevention council, the most expensive single project proposed would involve nearly $60 million to improve the Metro East Sanitary District levees near East St. Louis. Other improvements were proposed for the Wood River, Chain of Rocks and Prairie du Pont and Fish Lake levees and related flood-control structures.

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