Flooding estimates are called flawed
By Sara Shipley
Of the Post-Dispatch
Sunday, Apr. 17 2005
The future of riverside developments in seven Midwestern states hinges on a
government study that an environmental group says is "seriously flawed."
The Army Corps of Engineers flood study should be withdrawn and completely
redone, according to a petition filed this month by the Missouri Coalition for
The 2004 study, which took $9 million and seven years to produce, will provide
the basis for new flood plain maps. Those maps will determine whether thousands
of acres of low-lying river bottoms should be opened or closed to development.
The maps also will dictate whether thousands of people and businesses from East
St. Louis to Kansas City and beyond have to buy flood insurance as a condition
of getting a mortgage.
Flood map revisions and flood plain developments could be delayed or altered
because of the coalition's challenge under the Data Quality Act. The first
project to be affected by the challenge may be St. Peters' proposed 1,600-acre
Lakeside 370 business park in the wide, flat flood plain of the Mississippi
"There's been a lot of time and money put into what the corps (has) done to
generate these questionable results," said Ted Heisel, executive director of
the St. Louis-based group, a major player in local environmental issues. "What
I hope is that no more money is spent until we can take another look at these
Corps officials defended the so-called "flow frequency" study, which was vetted
by officials from Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska,
Wisconsin, the National Weather Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the
Federal Emergency Management Agency and other participants.
"You have all these professional agencies that agreed on it," said Ron
Fournier, a spokesman for the corps' Rock Island, Ill., office. "We used the
best models that were available. At the moment, these numbers stand."
FEMA hasn't yet completed any flood plain map revisions based on the study,
which was deemed final last fall. A FEMA spokesman said the agency would be
cautious about using data that may be subject to change.
"If we make changes to maps based on data that's in question, that could cause
us to get sued, and obviously we want to avoid that. And we want to use the
right data," said Butch Kinerney, a spokesman at FEMA headquarters in
FEMA is working to update all flood plain maps across the country. The agency
has budgeted almost $1.5 billion for the work through 2008.
Any delay could affect the city of St. Peter's application for a flood map
revision, filed in December based on the corps' new study results. The city has
had trouble with its Lakeside 370 project because current maps show that about
1,300 feet of the development lie in the river's floodway - the area set aside
for moving water during a flood, in which development is tightly restricted.
The study found a decrease of 1.2 feet in the level of a so-called 100-year
flood at St. Peters. That means that the height of a flood estimated to happen
once in a century would be 1.2 feet lower than before. The effect is to
decrease the size of the floodway and increase the part of the flood plain
available for development.
City Administrator Bill Charnisky has said he expects FEMA's "new delineation"
will move the floodway from the Lakeside 370 project area. The city is moving
ahead with considering bids for contractors to build a four-mile levee
essential to the park.
But a letter from FEMA indicates that the city has more work to do before the
agency revises its map. The letter, dated March 14, asks for nine kinds of
additional information within 90 days or the request will be suspended. Among
the requirements are letters from the cities of St. Charles and O'Fallon and
St. Charles and Calhoun counties saying they understand and agree with the
effects of the map revision on their community. Calhoun County is among the
opponents of the Lakeside 370 project.
St. Peters Building Commissioner Roger Stewart said he wasn't sure if the city
could fulfill all the requirements within 90 days.
Lee McKinney, a former corps district commander who is now a consultant for the
city, said the map revision would not affect the project because the city had
already issued itself a flood plain development permit, based on a consultant's
finding that the project would not cause additional flooding.
However, the floodway issue could make it harder for the city to get its
remaining permits and fight off legal challenges.
The crux of the debate is whether flood levels are getting better or worse on
the region's major rivers. The corps' study, using complex hydrological models,
reported that flood levels had increased in some parts of the Midwest, but in
the St. Louis area, they had generally decreased.
For example, the study reported that the Mississippi River at St. Louis would
be 1 foot lower during a hypothetical 100-year flood now than when the last
revision was done in 1979.
Some scientists outside the corps dispute those findings, saying that it is
obvious that floods are getting worse. The Coalition for the Environment has
cited their studies in its challenge to the corps' report.
One was done by Nicholas Pinter, a geologist at Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, who evaluated a 100-year flood at St. Louis. He reported that the
flood level didn't fall but instead rose 3.3 feet - potentially risking the
failure of major flood walls protecting $5 billion in development in St. Louis
and parts of the Metro East area.
Pinter said the corps' models were biased and simplistic in part because they
refuse to acknowledge that levees, wing dikes and other structures make
flooding worse. The corps builds these structures for flood control and
"These models allow a 'fuzzy math,' so the full impacts of these projects are
not being recognized," Pinter said.
The corps has heard similar arguments from Pinter and others, but they remain
confident in their view.
"People don't expect the flows to go down, so you're going to have people
going, hey, you guys are wrong." said Dennis Stephens, a longtime corps
hydraulic engineer in St. Louis. "I expected it, but I'm confident that we can
defend the methodology we used."
Corps officials said the agency would respond by June 30 to the coalition's
"petition for correction of information" under the Data Quality Act. The
obscure 2000 law has been frequently used by industry to challenge
environmental regulations. This time, environmentalists are trying to turn the
table and use the law to their advantage.
The coalition has won a number of other battles recently, including getting a
settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that required the
state of Missouri to rewrite its water quality regulations.
Reporter Tim Bryant contributed to this story.
Reporter Sara Shipley