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Article updated: 4/29/2013 12:39 PM

Has Des Plaines River flood prevention stalled?

Only 1 of 6 projects from 1980s finished

By Madhu Krishnamurthy

Nearly 27 years since the twin deluges of 1986 and 1987 set new flooding records affecting thousands of homes and businesses, proposed solutions to alleviate flooding along the upper Des Plaines River in Cook and Lake counties seem to be limping along.

In response to the floods of a quarter-century ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed and recommended numerous projects, including levees, flood walls and reservoirs, to significantly reduce the devastating impact of the surging river.

Ultimately, six major projects were chosen -- three each in Lake and Cook counties -- estimating a 25 percent reduction in flood damage. Of those only one, the roughly $18 million Levee 50 in Des Plaines, has been built thus far by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The roughly $28 million Levee 37, which comprises 10,200 feet of levee/floodwall in Mount Prospect/Prospect Heights, is near completion. What remains is a 600-foot-wide gap in the floodwall that can be filled in once compensatory storage is built 2.3 miles downstream in Wheeling's Heritage Park. The roughly $30 million reservoir, built by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, is expected to be completed by 2014, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Among the flood control projects that remain is the proposed expansion of Big Bend Lake reservoir in Des Plaines, one of the areas hardest hit by the April 17 storm.

The river level in Des Plaines crested at 10.92 feet on April 19, setting a new flood record and damaging more than 2,000 properties in its wake.

City officials say had the three reservoirs proposed for Lake County, the Big Bend Lake expansion, and compensatory storage in Wheeling been finished along with Levee 37 as planned, it would have lessened the impact of flooding in town.

"We would have seen some drops in the flood profiles that we had," said Tim Oakley, Des Plaines director of public works and engineering.

Jeff Zuercher, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager for the upper Des Plaines River projects, said negotiations over land and financing delayed the Heritage Park reservoir project.

"The target (completion) date would ideally have been sometime during the construction of Levee 37 in April 2012," Zuercher said. "It's hard to say what that would have done downstream. We cannot say for sure whether it would have considerably reduced flooding in Des Plaines."

Des Plaines officials have criticized Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights for filling the Levee 37 floodwall gap during the recent flood, saying it made flooding worse for Des Plaines residents.

"The IDNR is looking into it," Oakley said.

Officials in those towns say their actions were authorized by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Closing the gap reduced flooding in the northeast section of Mount Prospect known as Newtown, an area bounded by Rand, River, Kensington and Seminole that was annexed in 1972 after it was already built out, according to Mount Prospect Village Manager Michael Janonis.

"It was very beneficial for Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights," Janonis said. "It was a lot of water."

Janonis said with record flooding, both towns were doing their best to protect residents, which the levee definitely helped do.

Zuercher said Levees 50 and 37 performed as expected and designed during the recent flood.

"We are continuing to conduct post-event analyses with our partners and the communities affected to help determine impacts, and if any mitigation efforts need to be further discussed," he said.

Zuercher said it's hard to quantify how much flooding would have been reduced if the proposed flood control projects had been built, but it's undeniable they would have helped.

"Anytime you can get storage in an urbanized area, it helps," he said.

Zuercher said the Cook County Forest Preserve District has rejected the proposed $20 million expansion of Big Bend Lake reservoir, which calls for adding 400-acre-feet of storage on forest preserve land just south of Golf Road.

"They are not willing to move forward with building this project," he said. "The lake as it is right now doesn't actually provide excess storage above and beyond what is normally there."

In a statement issued Friday, forest district spokeswoman Karen Vaughan said the project goes against its mission "to acquire and preserve natural lands in Cook County for the pleasure, education and recreation of our residents."

"In order to increase the storage capacity of the lake, the U.S. Army Corps proposed creating a large berm around the lake's perimeter," Vaughan said. "This would have made access to the lake more difficult, required the removal of valuable trees from the site, and screened the lake and its scenic value from visitors to the preserve."

The proposed lake modification would require the removal of roughly 3,500 trees around the lake, according to Des Plaines officials.

The forest preserve district has encouraged the Army Corps to look at other options.

"It's worth noting that the forest preserves serve as the region's greatest rainwater retainer -- absorbing, cleaning and evaporating the hundreds of millions of gallons of rainwater that fall in the county each year, protecting hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses from flooding," Vaughan said in the statement.

Oakley said even if the Army Corps is satisfied with the forest preserve district's response, city officials are not. He said officials plan to meet with Cook County commissioners to persuade them to allow the Big Bend project to move forward.

"We need to get past the Army Corps and forest preserve district staff level and talk to the elected officials of Cook County," Oakley said. "Communities from Des Plaines down to Riverside, they all benefit from the Big Bend Lake reservoir project. The longer you wait, the higher the construction costs get over time, as well as the land values."

Oakley acknowledges the benefits of the reservoir expansion will be marginal to the homes directly opposite the river from Big Bend Lake.

"The profile is going to decrease 3 inches," Oakley said. "They still will flood. It's really not enough. There needs to be more reservoirs built, more levees and more storage facilities, as well. The corps should pursue the plan and get those reservoirs built in Lake County."

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