October 20, 2007

Flood Projects Trudge to Reality: Des Plaines River Plans Finally OKd

By Liam Ford and Ray Quintanilla, Chicago Tribune

Oct. 20---- First proposed more than a decade after devastating floods hit the Chicago area in 1986, a $72 million package of levee and reservoir projects is finally ready to move forward, promising relief to residents who had a close call this summer, officials said Friday.

Property owners have chafed at the long planning process for the project, which got started after the record floods more than 20 years ago killed seven people and forced 15,000 residents to evacuate homes along the Des Plaines River. More than 30 communities in Lake, Cook and McHenry Counties were affected by the disaster.

Even as federal and state officials laid out the construction plans Friday, they acknowledged the work will take at least four years to complete.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came up with recommendations for flood control along the river in 1990. But, as communities haggled over the best ways to avert flooding, nearly a decade passed before a specific list of projects was offered in 1999.

So far, because of disputes over land needed for some projects, as well as legal wrangling and funding issues, only one piece of the plan has been launched: a new levee in Des Plaines. The agreement signed Friday between the Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources means the rest of the work finally will get started. But it might not be finished until 2012, officials said.

The federal, state and local governments agreed to spend $72.4 million on six projects aimed at alleviating flooding in 33 communities covering 500 square miles, said Col. Jack Drolet, commander of the corps' Chicago District.

The work would expand Big Bend Lake in Des Plaines and Buffalo Reservoir near Long Grove; create a new Levee 37 along River Road, near Mt. Prospect and Prospect Heights; and change a dam at North Fork Mill Creek in Lake County.

Since the 1986 deluge, flood protection along the river has advanced in incremental steps, "but this is huge," said Mt. Prospect Mayor Irvana Wilks, whose community will share the proposed Levee 37 along Des Plaines River Road with Prospect Heights.

"It's only a first step, but it's a very important first step, because it allows everything else to flow from it," said Deborah Stone, Department of Natural Resources deputy director.

The stretch of river affected by the work runs from Wadsworth in north Lake County to Riverside in the western suburbs, officials said. The federal government's share will be about $47 million.

"You don't have to live on the river to be flooded," said Des Plaines Mayor Tony Arredia. "Towns that are miles and miles away from the river see the flood back up through the sewers.

"I just hope it doesn't take as long to complete this project as it was to get to this milestone."

On Friday, residents of the Big Bend Lake neighborhood in Des Plaines said they were glad to learn the work was finally ready to move forward. Their neighborhood, badly damaged 20 years ago, is just across the river from where a lake will be expanded to create a larger reservoir.

In August, residents on Big Bend Drive hard by the Des Plaines River braced themselves for a repeat of the 1986 floods, which saw homes inundated when the river crested above 11 feet, a record 5 feet above flood stage.

Although some homes saw flooding this year, those on higher ground along the road escaped damage, as the river crested at 8.6 feet -- above flood stage, but nowhere near levels of 1986.

With soggy memories still lingering, several residents there expressed skepticism that the plans go far enough.

"The water will fill that lake," said Mike Ostrowski, 73, who has lived on Big Bend Drive in a house overlooking the river for 37 years.

Ostrowski described the flood of 1986 as "total chaos and bedlam," when his entire block was covered with water up to 3 feet deep in the streets. Most basements in the 40 or so homes on his block were flooded, and many homeowners decided not to leave because they feared looting, Ostrowski said.

"Those 11 days were just horrendous," he said.

Walter Kuhn, 90, who also lives on Big Bend Drive, figured at least 300 books in his basement were ruined during the August storms when water seeped in. Kuhn also remains skeptical that officials have found a permanent solution.

"I'm hoping they really give this a careful look before the work begins," he said.

The Department of Natural Resources already has spent about $13 million on flood projects on the Des Plaines in recent years, some of which is included in the $72 million price tag for the six projects, said Stone, the deputy director.

As the rest of the projects awaited approval, the DNR, Des Plaines and Park Ridge began what is known as Levee 50 on the two towns' border, a levee and pumps along the river at Dempster Street designed to protect about 200 homes and businesses and slated for completion this fall.

Along the north side of Dempster Street near Busse Highway in Des Plaines, crews are still putting in a steel retaining wall and have begun filling in the 10 feet between the road and the steel wall. It paid dividends this summer, helping keep basements dry, officials said.

"It certainly helps," said Tim Oakley, Des Plaines' engineering director.

North of Des Plaines, along the river, work is slated to start next year on Levee 37. During the flood scare this summer, Mt. Prospect and Prospect Heights spent thousands of dollars to build a temporary levee. Workers scrambled to fashion it out of Jersey barriers and sandbags in the middle of River Road.

When they finished, residents thanked them, but still wanted to know when the permanent river wall would be built, recalled Mayor Wilks.

When the levee is finished, Wilks said, "It will truly be a blessing."

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