Illinois promises millions for Cahokia Heights flooding, but residents are skeptical
Illinois is dedicating $21 million in state funding to fix the dilapidated sewer system in Cahokia Heights, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced in a trip to the Metro East community on Wednesday.
About half of that total is immediately available to the community through a $9.9 million grant administered by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and will pay to fix or replace critical parts of the city’s wastewater system.
“This funding signifies real relief for residents and businesses,” Pritzker said. “Piece by piece, we’re going to dismantle the chronic problems that have caused so much needless headache and heartbreak.”
Local elected leaders cheered the funding as a major step to resolving decades of chronic flooding that brings sewage into homes in some neighborhoods.
“Our residents will start seeing tremendous progress as early as two months, simply by taking these funds allocated today and fixing lift stations,” said Cahokia Heights Mayor Curtis McCall Sr.
These stations are key parts of many sewer systems and move wastewater from lower to higher elevations where gravity alone cannot do the trick.
The bulk of the money from IEPA will pay to repair or replace about 35 lift stations in Cahokia Heights and for thousands of feet of sewer lining on the main branch of the system and other select areas, said Christine Davis, who is the project manager for this grant with IEPA.
“The City of Cahokia Heights basically has to submit information to us that we’re going to approve prior to them taking any action for the implementation of the contract,” she said.
Beyond specific work on the sewers, the grant terms also require city officials in Cahokia Heights to engage with local residents to ensure they understand the scope and progress of the improvements, Davis said. This also includes chances for residents to provide feedback on how they see the project is working to benefit the community, she added.
This element of the grant is one McCall also emphasized at Wednesday's press conference, pointing to the local advocacy by residents, like the group Centreville Citizens for Change.
“We’re going to form a partnership with those same individuals,” he said. “I want to say thanks to them, because that citizen group was the conscience to get this funding started. We love those residents. We have to win back those residents’ trust.”
McCall was emphatic that local residents would be involved in making decisions on how funding will be awarded.
More money needed
Davis stressed this funding is a starting point for the vast improvements the Metro East community needs. Officials said full completion of the work could take three to five years.
“$9.9 million sounds like a lot of money, but there’s a lot more money that’s needed in this watershed or in this community in order for the local residents to see a solution of the sewer overflows,” she said. “We won’t be seeing an immediate fix on anybody’s property, which is really important for people to understand.”
For residents in Cahokia Heights still reeling from last month’s historic flash flooding, this does little to address their needs now. Many are still cleaning up from this most recent storm.
“We know about the planning and investigation and the implementation and getting stuff approved,” said longtime Cahokia Heights resident Yvette Lyles. “We need immediate relief. We need action. We need to see stuff going on.”
She added she’s gotten her hopes up too many times after officials promised to fix the flooding situation where she lives.
“Broken promises just too many times,” Lyles said. “Do what you say you’re gonna do. And if you’re not going to do it, don’t say anything.”
Other locals reflect this sentiment. Walter Byrd explained he’s been dealing with flooding on his property since his eldest grandchild was about 9.
“She’s going to college. That’s how long we’ve been dealing with this stuff,” he said. “Ain’t nothing changed.”
Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.
Brian Muñoz contributed reporting.