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Local News

Joliet considers building $2 million levee system to avert off flood zones

Joliet considers building $2 million levee system

The Des Plaines River on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Joliet, Ill. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is threatening to declare a section of downtown Joliet a flood plain, something that could boost insurance rates for downtown businesses if the city does not spend the estimated $2 million to prevent a flood that city officials note never has happened and they think never will.
The Des Plaines River on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Joliet, Ill. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is threatening to declare a section of downtown Joliet a flood plain, something that could boost insurance rates for downtown businesses if the city does not spend the estimated $2 million to prevent a flood that city officials note never has happened and they think never will.

JOLIET – Joliet may need to spend $2 million to prevent a flood that city officials say never has happened and never would.

But the federal government isn’t so sure, and a future map outlining flood risks could include a large part of downtown Joliet and certain areas on the near East Side.

The city faces the option of building a new levee system or exposing business and homeowners in the area to the cost of flood insurance.

The cost of the levee system to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency standards is estimated at $2 million.

“We’ve been fighting this for eight years,” Public Works Director James Trizna told the council Monday. “I want to make everybody aware of what the situation is.”

Councilman Larry Hug called it a “phantom problem.”

“How does FEMA justify taking areas that have never flooded and putting them in flood zones?” Mayor Bob O’Dekirk asked.

Trizna said the FEMA has identified a section of the Des Plaines River north of the Ruby Street bridge where a connection with the Illinois & Michigan Canal could lead to flooding during extremely heavy rains.

The predicted flooding would occur in the north section of downtown, an area east of Scott Street, and then south of downtown in an area that includes the Water’s Edge housing development under construction.

City representatives have tried to make the case that the river wall downtown and the lock-and-dam system along the river always have prevented flooding, even during extreme rains such as those that occurred in 1996, Trizna said.

“We said, ‘Guys this is reality. This is what goes on here,’ ” Trizna said.

FEMA’s case

The new map already has been pushed back since first presented in 2009. Trizna said FEMA wants it to become effective by January 2019.

An implementation date has not been set yet, Laurie Smith-Kuypers, an outreach specialist with FEMA, said Wednesday. But FEMA would hold a public meeting about a year before a map would be implemented, she said. There also would be an appeals period.

The map actually is for all of Will County, but Joliet has become the focal point.

“This project was put on hold due to the issues in Joliet,” Smith-Kuypers said.

FEMA has been in the process of creating new maps since the early 2000s, as the mapping system has been converted from paper to digital, she said.

As the map for Will County was redrawn, it was determined that the levee at the juncture of the I&M Canal with the Des Plaines River did not meet the standards, Smith-Kuypers said. The Army Corps of Engineers, meanwhile, has not certified that its lock-and-dam system would prevent flooding at the I&M Canal juncture.

“Because it hasn’t flooded doesn’t mean it won’t,” Smith-Kuypers said. “We’re seeing more and more flooding in areas that haven’t flooded before.”

$2 million levee

The answer may be a new levee system.

The proposal is to build a system of earth berms and concrete walls in the area around the I&M Canal that would meet FEMA standards, John Whitt, senior project manager with Rempe-Sharpe, told the council. The Geneva firm has been the city’s consulting engineer in working with FEMA.

“We’re meeting with them,” Whitt said. “We’re looking to get a nod, a wink – if you guys do this, you’re headed in the right direction. We think we have that.”

The proposal is to cover about a 3,600-foot area north of Ruby Street. The system would extend into the Forest Preserve of Will County’s Joliet Iron Works.

Joliet would get more than a wink and a nod before building the levee.

FEMA does issue conditional approvals ahead of construction, but the final product has to be built according to plan.

“We wouldn’t spend any money for construction until we get that conditional approval,” Trizna said.

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