Monarch levee transformed Chesterfield Valley
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Just beyond the noise and traffic of the Chesterfield Valley -- past the big levee behind the Taubman Prestige Outlets mall -- is Chesterfield’s newest nature park, set to open this fall.
Despite its proximity to a retail center, the 188-acre site is a surprisingly secluded and quiet spot. It's a place to watch for white-tailed deer and migratory birds, a place to ponder the beauty of the Missouri River floodplain.
The Monarch-Chesterfield Levee District, which donated the property to the city last year, had used the site as a borrow pit to reconstruct the levee after the flood of ’93.
"The lake is about 30 feet deep, approximately 20 acres and well populated with fish. It’s now a really nice park,’’ said Michael Geisel, Chesterfield’s director of public services.
The wetlands acreage, which is restricted to use as conservation and passive recreation, lies between the main levee and an agricultural levee that is designed to hold back minor wanderings of the Big Muddy.
"We would expect it to flood on about a 10-year interval,’’ Geisel said. "If it does, it will certainly inundate some farm ground -- and this park -- but it keeps water off the [main] levee for the majority of the time.’’
The city plans to incorporate its new park into the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee Trail -– a smooth asphalt walking and bike path constructed atop much of the levee. The trail, part of the Great Rivers Greenways District, will eventually connect to the Katy Trail via a pedestrian/bike lane on the new Daniel Boone Bridge.
The Monarch levee, which protects 4,000 acres from the Missouri River, is part of the fabric of life in the Chesterfield Valley. The section of levee north of Highway 40 is a line of demarcation: To the north wildlife and wetlands stretch to the river. To the south are back-to-school sales.
In simple terms, the fortification of the Monarch levee meant adding height and width to the pre-flood levee. But the project also involved a complex engineering scheme of seepage berms, flood walls, gates -- and pumps capable of pumping 20,000 gallons of floodwater a minute, should the need arise.
The project has been completed in phases, beginning with the immediate post-flood need to repair the breached levee, said David Human, legal counsel for the levee district. Working with the Corps of Engineers, the district took an active approach that started with ensuring temporary flood protection for valley property owners as they began mopping up after the water receded in August 1993.
"I like to remind people that there was a flood in September in ’93,’’ Human said. "The Corps put a temporary rock dike along Eatherton Road to block the water from coming back into the valley. At that point, a number of buildings had already been gutted, and they were starting to put up dry wall. A lot of people say that if that water had come back in, they don’t know if the valley would have come back.’’
Human said that after the flood, FEMA required that the levee be recertified to the 100-year level of protection. In 1996, the district began work to rebuild a section of the levee upstream of the Daniel Boone Bridge to the 500-year elevation. That section was identified as the most important in terms of protecting the valley.
Human said the levee district and the city are sensitive to the fact that news reports of flooding elsewhere on the Missouri can spark concerns among property owners in the valley. During times of high water, the district and city mobilize a flood watch/warning system to spread information about their monitoring efforts.
"In Chesterfield Valley, in the last 15 years, I’ve never seen panic,’’ Human said, adding,"Sometimes there is some angst.’’
Human said the bike trail on top of the levee serves a dual purpose: recreation and access for levee work.
"One of the biggest problems in ‘93 was that the levee district didn’t have access to its levees,’’ he said. "Should we have high water, we would shut the trail, and we would use the trail for inspection purposes and access.’’
Despite the levee’s strengths, Human points out that there are no guarantees in life.
"I think we’ve got a great board and engineers working for the district. But the other thing we’re clear to say is that there are no guarantees,’’ he said. "And at some point, I say this: It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’ But will that be next year or in the year 3000?’’
Because the valley's 4,000 acres are in a protected floodplain, property owners are eligible to purchase national flood insurance through FEMA.
According to Robert Butler of FEMA, there are currently 378 national flood insurance policies within the city limits of Chesterfield: Of those, 120 are residences, with a premium value of about $31 million; 258 are commercial properties insured for about $131 million. Although the Chesterfield Valley is within a flood zone, the levee protection is such that FEMA does not classify it as a special risk area.
Keys to success
Twenty years later, Michael Herring, Chesterfield’s city administrator, says that one memory stands out in his mind of the night of July 30, 1993.
He had been out with sandbagging crews when the levee broke. In this era of no cell phones, Herring said his job was to get back to city hall to notify the mayor, county executive and the governor’s office. At the time, he didn't understand that the incoming water would spread out as it entered the valley -- and rise relatively slowly. He recalls nervously checking his rearview mirror while stopped at an intersection.
"I thought there was a tsunami coming,’’ he said.
The next morning he joined other city and county officials for a helicopter tour.
"The valley was now under water,'' he said. "And it was a very sinking feeling to realize what had happened and the size and scope of this disaster.’’
Looking back, Herring identifies what he believes were crucial keys to the valley’s recovery -- beginning with the city’s incorporation just five years before.
"We assumed the responsibility of managing this process. If we weren’t a city, there would have been no structure to do that. The county’s interests were pretty well limited to the airport,’’ he said. "We were able to apply for disaster relief funds. It was a very challenging time. There was so much to do and so much demand. People wanted to recover.’’
Thousands of volunteers played a major role in those early days, Herring said. He credits the leadership and members of the St. Louis Family Church -- which was also a flood victim -- for coordinating the volunteer clean-up efforts.
In November 1993, Mayor Jack Leonard praised the volunteers who had come from across the nation, telling the Associated Press, "They saved the valley. They turned our desolation into optimism.”
The new levee was a game changer, but so was the city’s huge investment in infrastructure in the valley, say officials.
While some have questioned the city’s use of a tax-increment financing district to fund the improvements, they insist that the valley was, in fact, blighted by the flood. By January 1994, assessed valuation in the valley had plunged to $18.5 million, a 25 percent decrease. (According to the city, the most current assessed valuation for the valley is just under $197 million, a number that does not yet include two new outlet malls.)
"People look at the Chesterfield Valley today and scoff at the TIF,’’ Human said. "They don’t remember what the valley was like in ‘93 and ‘94.’’
The levee district funded the initial recertification work -- about $7 million -- with fees paid by property owners, Human said. The TIF helped fund additional improvements, including work to raise the levee to the 500-year level of protection.
Herring counts the TIF as a major success story because he said it was not used for commercial development but for infrastructure that spurred private investment -- including THF Realty’s 2-million-square foot Chesterfield Commons strip mall that jumpstarted major retail development.
"What people saw was that if THF and Walmart and Stan Kroenke were willing to build there, they were willing to build there,’’ Human said.
The TIF was retired in 2007 -- 10 years early – having funded $72 million in projects, including:
- construction of the Boone’s Crossing interchange on Interstate 64,
- construction of Edison Avenue that runs parallel with Chesterfield Airport Road,
- water and sewer lines and drainage improvement.
From a planning standpoint, Herring said the infrastructure improvements made room for big developments away from the already congested Manchester Road.
Herring said that if the flood of ’93 had a silver lining, it’s that, comparatively speaking, there had not been major development in the valley before the disaster.
“This is not to minimize the losses, but the area wasn’t a large residential area,’’ he said. “There were some people who lived there and were displaced. But had this been the city itself -- with all of our population under water -- it would have been a different situation and a different story.’’
What not to do?
Twenty years after the floodwater receded, Chesterfield Valley’s civic and business leaders have rebuilt the place, as they vowed they would in those early days of the Great Flood of ’93.
But for critics of floodplain development, the valley is a model for what not to do.
Robert Criss, a professor of geology in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University, calls Chesterfield Valley a poster child for "an absurd response to flooding.''
"Our problem is our rivers are flooding more and more all the time, and the biggest cause is floodplain encroachment and river constriction,’’ said Criss, who specializes in hydrogeology, the geology of water and systems of water.
Criss is critical of the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee-building, which he calls “an unsustainable path” as serious flooding events occur with increased frequency. And when levees do break, the damage tends to be major, he said.
"If you think back to ‘93, there was this dramatic video that’s in everybody’s mind of this house swirling about helplessly in the torrent,” Criss said. "In a natural river that floods, the water level increases about 6 inches a day. It’s a very gentle process. Yes, you might get water in your living room; you might have your house substantially damaged. But it’s not houses swirling helplessly in this torrent. It’s not your farms being scoured of top soil, and huge sand sheets being dumped somewhere else.’’
Geisel, Chesterfield’s public works director, said he understands the debate regarding floodplain policy, but he believes that it need not be a case of either/or.
He points to a wetland mitigation project sponsored by the city and the levee district that created two wetland sites on nearly 250 acres along the river in response to a federal mandate prohibiting the loss of wetlands. The project allowed the city to open up land for development by “mitigating” the loss of a scattering of wetlands of various sizes, some of them very small, on potential building sites.
Geisel said the valley provides a location for the kinds of big retail developments that residents want -- but not in their neighborhoods.
Chesterfield Mayor Bob Nation said that when all is said and done, it is important for the city to take a balanced approach.
"We are still mindful of the community we want to be, and it’s not all poured concrete and retail sales,” he said. "We think the more important thing is the community, the quality of life that our residents have come to expect."
A watershed moment
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the Great Flood of 1993. While the flooding began in May and stretched into September, the Mississippi River crested in St. Louis at a record-breaking 49.6 feet on Aug. 1. St. Louis wasn't alone; many communities along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers experienced record crests and devastation. In a series of stories from reporters Robert Koenig and Mary Delach Leonard, the Beacon looks at the impact of the flood on floodplain management as well as two communities that suffered extraordinary damage.