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posted: 5/10/2013 8:05 AM

Editorial: Towns must talk, cooperate in fight against flooding

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

The Des Plaines River has receded, the cleanup goes on. And while the shouting has stopped, there is still anger and hurt in Des Plaines, where many people are convinced that Mount Prospect worsened the flooding they endured by adjusting a levee to protect its own residents.

For the record, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has refereed that fight and called it for Mount Prospect. But that should be only the start of the conversation. When Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights filled in most of the 600-foot gap in Levee 37 at the height of the flooding, they prevented serious flooding to homes, businesses and apartments in those communities. As Arlan Juhl, the IDNR's director of the Office of Water Resources, says, nobody broke any agreements.

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Communities fight river flooding as best they can, and everyone understands that keeping water out of one town pushes it downstream for the next town to deal with. Des Plaines sandbagged, and presumably, that pushed water downstream, too, although clearly not in quantities sufficient to protect many Des Plaines neighborhoods nor abundant enough to create serious problems for neighbors downstream.

And, as it turns out, according to the IDNR, the water displaced by the Levee 37 "gap fill" was collected in Heritage Park, the reservoir under construction in Wheeling, and so did not worsen the flooding in Des Plaines.

But the IDNR decision is no knockout. Yes, Mount Prospect was acting to protect itself by filling in the gap, and its reasons were legally sound. But the village had never done this before. It didn't know that Heritage Park would take the overflow -- that was just lucky.

The height of the storm was also the height of the crisis. People were running everywhere, making spur-of-the-moment decisions based on the best available information. On the whole, they did well. But when Mount Prospect filled in the gap, other people and agencies needed to know -- the IDNR, the Army Corps, and certainly the city of Des Plaines. Had someone called the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, MWRD would have said Heritage Park was available to take some water, information they could have passed along.

And while nobody broke any agreement, if enough people don't like the agreements that stand, it's time to reopen the discussion. If there is a communication plan in place, it broke down. If there isn't one, there needs to be.

Levee 37 was built to protect Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights. The "gap" in the levee was meant to protect Des Plaines. When the reservoirs at Heritage Park are completed in about a year, the Army Corps will fill in the Levee 37 gap permanently, and this argument will be over.

But the experience emphasizes the importance for the towns to take another crack at working together on this. By Mother Nature's standard, a lot can happen in a year. It's time for the towns to talk -- and, for that matter, for all towns where fighting flooding must be a priority to make sure they are cooperating with each other.

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