Illinois EPA Awards Grant To Help Centreville Flooding Problems. What Happens Next?
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Forming a planning committee and encouraging resident participation are among the next steps for a new state-funded project designed to help reduce flooding and sewage issues in Centreville, Alorton and Cahokia.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency last week awarded the $919,869 grant to HeartLands Conservancy, a Belleville-based organization that’s committed to preserving natural resources in southwestern Illinois. Now, leaders of the new project are focused on the planning stages, which they hope will begin as soon as this month.
“The best information we can get is from the people experiencing this on a daily basis, on a yearly basis, so talking with residents and community groups in the municipalities themselves is really the best way for us to identify all of those issues,” said Mary Vandevord, president and CEO of HeartLands Conservancy. “We’ll be doing a major push to start meeting with people here in the next few weeks.”
The grant is a part of the Prairie du Pont watershed-based plan that’s aimed at reducing stormwater runoff, fixing minor sewage system infrastructure and using the best practices for managing rainfall.
The new grant comes as flooding issues in the Centreville area are garnering more state and federal attention. Last month marked the first time that Gov. J.B. Pritzker publicly vowed his support for finding flooding relief for residents. Additionally, the three cities, which will soon merge to become Cahokia Heights, applied for a $22 million FEMA grant earlier this year to assist with flooding and sewage problems.
Prairie du Pont watershed covers Cahokia, Alorton, Centreville and parts of East St. Louis. Christine Davis, who oversees Illinois EPA’s watershed management section, said the basis of the project is to help manage the water flowing into the watershed.
“We want to address the water for wherever it rains in the watershed, if it’s in the upland bluff areas, if it’s in the lowland areas, or if it’s down by the river itself,” Davis said. “We want to look at the bigger picture because we need to address all of the areas in order for the planning to help resolve some of the flooding issues that are going on.”
The north Centreville community has suffered the brunt of the flooding and sewage issues. Residents have dealt with the issues for decades, with minimal help from local government. The problems prompted a lawsuit filed last June on behalf of residents against the city and other entities. In July, Sen. Tammy Duckworth visited Centreville to begin addressing the issues.
Planning for the watershed improvements can take up to two years, and implementation can take decades, depending on the scope of the plans, according to Davis. Although Davis knows that the grant won’t be an immediate solution to Centreville’s flooding and sewage issues, she’s hoping it’ll be a monumental first step.
“We really do want to help figure out how to solve as much of the problem as we can,” Davis said. “I know that we’re not going to solve everything out there with the single funding. We really are trying.”
Mary Vandevord said her organization, HeartLands Conservancy, was not aware of the flooding and sewage issues until 2019 after hearing about the work of Centreville Citizens for Change, a group of residents demanding solutions to the environmental problems.
“We’re looking forward to working with these communities in this area who have been working so hard to have their voices heard by the state and federal government and others to address their problems, so being able to help with that in any way that we can, we are looking forward to doing,” Vandevord said.
The budget for the project is $1,019,391, with Illinois EPA providing $919,869 in grant funds and HeartLands Conservancy and project partners providing a $99,522 match. The project is also a reimbursement program, so funds will be disbursed to HeartLands Conservancy once the work for the planning process is completed. Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, National Great Rivers Research and Education Center and Heneghan & Associates engineering firm are partners for the project.
This is the tenth watershed-based plan that HeartLands Conservancy has worked on in southwestern Illinois. The nonprofit’s most recent project is working on the Canteen Creek watershed in Madison County.
“The benefit of having these plans done is not only are they a comprehensive way of looking and documenting the issues contributing to flooding and water quality problems, but they also are used in the state as the basis for other grant funds,” Vandevord said. “In the Canteen Creek watershed for example, after that was done and adopted and accepted by the state, we were able to come back and apply for an implementation grant that allows for construction of different basins and drain stabilization and all of that to help with some of the problems that were identified in the plan. That’s actually going on right now. We received that grant in 2019.”
Vandevord said the new watershed plan will be different from others that HeartLands Conservancy has led. The current project is more focused on the community and hearing the needs of residents.
“It’ll have a lot of similarities, but this area is more community-engaged,” Vandevord said. “In past watersheds, a lot of people weren’t interested in what was happening with the watershed, but this time we have a lot of concerned residents and very interested people who want to give input and have already given a lot of input into the process.”
Is community engagement enough?
Patricia Greenwood, 71, has lived in Centreville for most of her life. Her father bought her current home in the 1960s. She said the first time the home flooded was in 1995. Since then, the issue has become worse and more frequent. The last time it flooded in her home was in mid-March.
“The streets were flooded,” Greenwood said. “It didn’t come up to the front porch this time, and it didn’t come in the back door to the laundry room, but you could hear (the water) under the house, and it had that bad musty smell.”
Greenwood said she has mixed feelings about the new Illinois EPA grant, partially because she wants home repairs to be included in flooding relief.
“I know they’re wanting to fix the infrastructure and that’s all well and good, but what about our homes,?” Greenwood said. “What about our homes? We’re worried about both. You can’t live in a dilapidated house. Then if you do fix the infrastructure, the (value of the) house is still going to go down because of the needed repairs, so we’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Although Greenwood is happy that the new project will be informed by the community, she still has doubts about whether those plans will be successful.
“We’ve been screwed around so much that we’re still apprehensive about whoever,” Greenwood said. “I don’t care who it is, we’re still apprehensive.”
Nicole Nelson, a legal advocate for Centreville residents who’s one of the lawyers involved in the pending lawsuit, said she’s concerned about the timing of the project, given the urgency of the community’s needs.
“Hopefully everyone is genuine at the table and genuinely wants the residents’ involvement,” Nelson said. “Hopefully the things that they do want to do come to fruition and a lot sooner than the two-year timeline that they’ve given.”
She also hopes there’s authentic, perpetual collaboration with residents.
“(I want) shared collaboration and meaningful collaboration with the community and the residents and not just like superficial soundbite collaboration that they can give to the media just to save face (about) collaboration,” Nelson said. “I want them genuinely doing it and then taking that feedback they get from the community and actually implementing that or changing course, depending on what the feedback is. That’s what collaboration means, not just hearing what people say and doing what you want to do. It’s taking the feedback and adjusting the plans because the residents are experts more than anyone else.”
DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.