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What to do about the Meramec

Tonight [Wednesday, Aug. 9], area residents will gather in Eureka to discuss what can be done to prevent floods on the lower Meramec River. Guest speakers include the National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Those same guest speakers attended a citizen forum on July 19 in Fenton. And residents there asked the same question: what can be done?

In reality, the answer is “very little.”

Some blame climate change.

In the wake of the December 2015 flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a statement that contained the following: “The region experienced a massive 50- to 75-mile-wide storm system … producing 6- to 12-inch rainfall totals. Dec. 26, 2015, was the third-wettest day ever recorded in St. Louis history and December 2015 was the wettest December on record, with 11.74 inches of rainfall.”

Others blame local levees.

Robert Criss, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, told this publication and other news sources in December 2015, and again in May of this year, that “there is no question that development in floodplains contributed” to record flooding in the area. He said building homes and commercial enterprises on low-lying floodplains is “foolhardy, bad planning and exposes people.” He doesn’t dispute the fury of Mother Nature, but “the rivers have to have someplace to go,” he said.

In recent years, the course of the Meramec River has been into Eureka and down Interstate 44.

How do you stop a river from running? The answer is, you don’t.

One resident attending the Fenton meeting suggested dredging the Meramec to allow it to run deeper rather than wider. At whose cost?

A Fenton councilmember suggested restarting the Meramec Dam Project. That project was part of the Pick-Sloan/Flood Control Act of 1944, which sought to use dams to control flooding. People can argue all day about the potential effectiveness or detriment of the project; in the longrun, its failure was tied to money.

On Aug. 8, 1978, a nonbinding voter referendum, held in 12 counties and the city of St. Louis, recorded 64 percent of voters as opposed to the dam. Residents of the St. Louis metro area voted heavily against the project, while residents in communities near the dam voted largely in favor of it. On Dec. 29, 1981, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill from Congress to de-authorize the project.

The fate of flooding control in 2017 and beyond also is likely to be tied to money. Just as the building up of the floodplain was.

The question that area residents should be asking tonight in Eureka, is are we willing to bear the brunt of a raging river and its swollen tributaries?

Today, that burden is largely borne by individual businesses, homeowners and their insurance companies. Tomorrow, it could be borne by every taxpayer in the area. No one will willingly accept that burden, but something has to be done. Proof is in recent memory.

Last May, floodwaters swirled around the emerging construction of a new interstate interchange at I-44 and Route 141. Today, as that interchange continues to take impressive shape, it’s hard not to envision it engulfed by floodwaters again. If that happens and the interchange is damaged, we will pay for it.

The bottom line is that we always pay the price, regardless of how many times or how far we kick the can down the road.

In this issue of West Newsmagazine, reporter Jim Erickson takes a look at one Missouri dilemma: transportation needs vs. willingness to pay the price. With the image of I-44 overrun by floodwater, it’s hard not to dwell on another expensive Missouri dilemma: what to do about the Meramec?

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