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Health, Science, Environment

St. Louis County Council May Make It Harder To Build In Flood-Prone Areas

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
St. Louis County Council members are proposing to tighten restrictions on floodplain development in unincorporated parts of the county.

The St. Louis County Council may soon approve restrictions on building in the flood-prone areas of unincorporated parts of the county to prevent damage from future floods. 

The St. Louis area has experienced three record floods in the past five years, causing severe damage to communities along the Meramec, Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The county council is considering a bill that would lower the amount of water development can displace from one foot to one inch.

When people build in areas that flood, those structures can displace thousands of gallons of water — much like how adding ice cubes to a glass raises the water level inside.

Some residents of municipalities that have suffered severe damage spoke in favor of the bill. People who live along the Meramec River are exhausted from dealing with multiple floods since the 1990s, Eureka resident Kevin Kilpatrick told council members at a public hearing Tuesday. 

“Nothing in this bill is going to change what happened in 2015, 2017, but we can certainly take the responsibility to not make [floods] worse,” Kilpatrick said. “The residents have been asking, ‘Why do we keep doing things the same way?’”

The council could vote on the bill in coming weeks. 

Environmentalists have long advocated for policies that restrict floodplain development. Research has shown that buildings, levees and other structures in the floodplain can restrict the flow of water from rivers and worsen flooding.

Developers can raise structures and use other construction tactics to reduce damage, but local governments need to limit what builders can construct in the floodplain to prevent future disasters, said David Stokes, executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. 

“This type of change is the only thing that local governments can really do is actually in the long run, fight back and prevent a future situation from getting worse,” Stokes said. 

Just as floodwaters began to recede last summer, Jefferson County Council officials changed their floodplain policy to reduce the amount of water new development could displace from one foot to one inch. The county needed to do this to protect residents and businesses, Jefferson County Councilwoman Renee Reuter said. 

“We did that because we saw what happens when upstream and downstream build,” Reuter said to St. Louis County officials. “We want to be good neighbors, and we ask that you be good neighbors.”

Some municipalities in St. Louis County are not likely to adopt restrictions on floodplain development, Stokes said.

Such limitations could raise flood insurance rates and limit what property owners can do on their land, Eureka Mayor Sean Flower said. 

“If they applied it in Eureka, it would wipe out my downtown, and it would [hurt] my ability to run my sewer plant,” Flower said. 

The St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month released its recommendations for how eight municipalities along the lower Meramec River could reduce their risk of flood damage. 

The National Weather Service predicts that unusually high precipitation levels could lead to major flooding this spring in parts of Missouri, including the St. Louis area. 

Kayla Drake contributed to this report. 

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