Government: Levee designed to protect county should hold

Sunday, July 15, 2007

ELWOOD, Kan. -- Floodwaters that inundated parts of northwest Missouri and northeast Kansas in May were a good test of a levee designed to protect eastern Doniphan County from a repeat of the 1993 flood disaster.

Floodwaters rose within 4 feet of entering Elwood in May, and rumors flew through the town that the government was going to blow a hole in the levee to spare nearby St. Joseph, Mo.

But the waters receded and the town of about 1,000 residents did not go underwater, as it did in 1993.

Several government officials who routinely monitor the Elwood-Gladden Levee District say the network of embankments that keep the Missouri River from St. Joseph and Elwood should hold if heavy rains threaten the system again.

"We found out it is still pretty strong," Elwood Mayor Lawrence Mays said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Elwood-Gladden Levee District said continual maintenance keeps the levee viable. The levee could become even sturdier if the corps follows through on the recommendation of a study last year to gradually restore the levee and raise its elevation by 3 feet.

Eric Lynn, the corps' project manager, said the design phase for that project has begun, with local and federal governments sharing the costs. Construction isn't expected to start until 2011, which will include more cost reviews and property acquisition, he said.

The corps is not concerned about the flood-prone nature of Elwood's low-lying areas and hasn't heard from the community about localized flooding, Lynn said.

"The flood in May was a good test of seepage," he said. "At this time, we're pretty confident" that seepage won't become a major problem.

Maintenance and keeping all-terrain vehicles from tearing up the levee will be key to its continued viability. The Kansas Army National Guard, Air National Guard and Kansas Highway Patrol stepped up efforts to keep ATVs off the levee this spring.

Elwood-Gladden board President Craig Sheppard said that the potential for overtopping the levee is a systemwide concern along the river.

But he acknowledged that the levee, which was built more than 40 years ago, still does not meet a Federal Emergency Management Agency requirement for height.

"That's being addressed," Sheppard said. "The levee situation is in as good a shape as it ever was. We've still got plenty of land."

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