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St. Louis Corps Of Engineers Plan Would Help Residents Along Meramec River With Floods

Some structures on the Eureka High School campus remained mostly below water even as floodwater began to recede Thursday.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Eureka, Pacific, Valley Park and five other municipalities along the Meramec River could soon adopt new strategies to address frequent flooding along the Meramec River.

The St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has developed a plan to help eight municipalities and three counties along the Meramec River better prepare for floods. 

Agency officials recently released a report recommending numerous strategies that include buying out properties and restoring wetlands in the flood plain for areas that have a high risk of being flooded. Communities along the river have dealt with three record floods since 2015. 

Municipal and county governments will decide in March whether to adopt the corps’ plan. Doing so would help them better inform residents about flood plain development, said Hal Graef, a St. Louis corps program manager. 

“It’s not just about one particular city or one particular county, but you can see upstream and downstream what your neighbors are doing and have that broader discussion as a region,” Graef said. “Where as a region do we want to go, what is acceptable development-wise as a region?” 

Flooding in the St. Louis region has increased significantly in the past two decades. Scientists expect that climate change will cause heavier rains and more floods in the Midwest. The corps’ plan for the Meramec River communities did not account for climate change, but agency officials did consider that rainfall will increase, Graef said. 

Environmentalists in the St. Louis region have long advocated for limits to flood plain development, which can worsen flooding. The corps' plan will likely be effective for helping communities address current flooding, but it’s doubtful that cities will take the necessary steps to prevent flood damage long term, said David Stokes, director of the environmental nonprofit Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. 

“I think the corps is putting a lot of faith in the cities of the St. Louis region to do the right thing, and I think in that respect, I would expect we’ll all be sorely disappointed,” Stokes said. “We need these cities to make the hard choices to limit flood plain development, and I think that’s going to be a very difficult sell in those cities.”

Jefferson County officials passed an amendment last summer to limit the amount of water that new structures in the flood plain can displace. The St. Louis County Council also plans to hold a hearing in February to consider a bill that would restrict flood plain development. 

If local governments adopt the corps' recommendations, residents and property owners could see decreases in flood insurance premiums. The Federal Emergency Management Agency encourages many of strategies in the corps’ plan, like updating flood warning systems, to lower the costs of flood insurance. 

Restoring and protecting natural areas in the flood plain can not only reduce the risk of flood damage, it can improve water quality and provide numerous environmental benefits, said Barbara Charry, a flood plain strategy manager at the Nature Conservancy’s Missouri chapter. 

“The lower Meramec is an incredible resource — it’s one of the most biodiverse, free-flowing rivers in the mid-continental U.S.,” Charry said. “I think we do need to make room for the river to allow it to handle the floodwaters and provide the benefits and resources that it does. Developing in the flood plain puts people and nature at risk.” 

The corps will host a public meeting to discuss its plan at 6 p.m. Feb. 12 at Arnold City Hall.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.