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The River That Never Sleeps


T he ancient Egyptians used flooding to their advantage, relying on floods to create fertile soil to fertilize their crops. In agrarian societies, flooding often was considered a gift. Des Plaines, like the whole world, was once farmland. But as Des Plaines developed, flooding ended up becoming far more of a nuisance than a gain, with rising waters leading to ruined homes. In the mid-80s, Des Plaines suffered the worst floods of its history, as the river reached roughly 11 feet in height, causing President Ronald Reagan to declare Des Plaines a disaster area in September of 1986. The next year, O’Hare International Airport was forced to close for the only time in its history that wasn’t due to snow. “My parents’ house flooded up on Elk Boulevard. We became an island,” Maine West 1965 alumnus John Carle said, referring to the 1987 flood. “I could stand at the end of the drive-way, and the water was mid-chest on me.” The perpetuity of the floods was a major issue as well. “It seemed like every spring, River Road would flood,” Maine West 1967 alumnus Joe LeCastro said, and along with it, the homes nearby. Flooding as a whole shaped the way people lived. “Anytime it would rain a lot, it was cause for anxiety,” recalled English teacher Megan Palm, Maine West class of 1996, who grew up about a block from River Road. “Especially if it was going to be a storm that lasted a couple of days, my mom wouldn’t sleep well.” Flooding became an ongoing chore that impacted the wellbeing of entire neighborhoods. “It’s taxing, and it’s a lifelong struggle if you live in that area,” Palm said. The community tried many things to help each other with flood damage. “The [Salvation Army] brought out a bunch of sandbags, and buckets and towels and things that people would need to clean up after [the flood] and we had somebody down in the C-Wing Gym handing those out to whoever would come in,” former Maine West assistant principal El-don Burk said. The city itself also had its own flood relief strategies. “Any time that there was significant flooding, Public Works would come and dump a huge mound of sand, and then all the neighbors would go with their shovels and their wheelbarrows,” Palm said. “It’s arduous work; it’s really difficult.” With the community struggling with the flood impact, they turned to the federal government for assistance, specifically to the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps of Engineers started phase I of the Des Plaines River project just after the major floods of the 80s, first as a study of the area, and then design and implementation. “Phase I has pretty much been designed and constructed to its completion,” Jeffrey Zuercher, Project Manager for the US Army Corps of Engineers, and for the Des Plaines River project, said in a Westerner inter-view. The first phase of the project, however, hasn’t been completed without conflict. “Phase I originally was six authorized projects, and the two that have been fully con-structed are Levee 50 in the city of Des Plaines, and Levee 37 in Prospect Heights and Mount Prospect,” Zuercher said. “The other phases of this project have run into issues in terms of getting real estate to be able to construct, and so those are on pause indefinitely.” The causes of the failure of the other four projects have to do with competing public interests. In 1999, Congress authorized a proposal for construction, however “the proposed locations were mostly on what is forest preserve land. The forest preserve, although having as one of their missions the prevention of flooding, is reluctant to give up land to build reservoirs,” Zuercher said. “As we’ve tried to build some of those reservoirs, or areas that were needed for impoundment of water, the forest preserves have rejected the ideas [of] using that land in that way.” The proposed reservoirs would have led to large removal of trees, and so the forest preserve didn’t allow those projects to be built. Although those aspects of the Des Plaines River project never came into fruition, if they had, it would have changed the area’s landscape drastically. Despite only parts of Phase I being completed, residents are overall happy with the improvements made. “I feel like [the flooding situation has] improved a great deal,” Palm said. “My father still lives in the same home, and he’s approaching his late 70s, and it’s been a discussion with us, like, ‘Are you ready to move?’ But it’s gotten to the point where he hasn’t had any of those concerns because of the infrastructure improvements.” The engineers seem to be satisfied as well. “One of the biggest tests was the flood of 2013, which was almost another record-setting flood,” Zuercher said. Levee 50 and Levee 37 kept Des Plaines from having the major floods other areas experienced. “We’re pretty confident that a lot of what we said we would do, we accomplished,” Zuercher said. Despite this, some concerns still remain. “It’s a lot better now, obviously, the dams and various things that they’ve done have made it a lot better,” said Burk. “But there’s still a potential and I am concerned about this spring with as much ice and snow as we have – it’s going to start melting pretty quickly, and that could be a problem.” Despite the work of engineers, flooding re-mains a real risk for the people of Des Plaines. Around the authorization of Phase I, “There was a realization that Phase I didn’t cover all of the areas that could possibly flood,” Zuercher said. And so with the authorization of construction for Phase I in 1999, authorization for a study for Phase II was given also. Phase II has taken quite a bit of time to materialize, though. Starting in 1999, the study was finally completed in 2015, and then authorized by Congress for construction in 2016. Only recently in 2022 has the project received funding, and the Corps of Engineers are currently in the design process, developing new ways to control the river. T h e progress made has not come easy nor fast, but people have had an im-pact on the establishment of this project. “The City of Des Plaines has done a lot of infrastructure work over the last 20 years, and I think that’s because of the pressure from the community,” Palm said. “That took a lot of pressure from neighbors and com-munity members to talk to their aldermen in Des Plaines, to make sure that was a priority for the city.” Government agencies have indeed made progress on the river over the years. “What we’re here for is for the public,” Zuercher said. “When there’s a public outcry over loss of property and in the case of the Des Plaines River, several lives have been lost over the years, our goal is to try to reduce that as much as possible, and keep people safe, and help keep their property safe as well.”


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