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Project would require both municipalities to reach real estate easement agreements with some residents and businesses along Little Calumet River

By Josh Bootsma

LANSING, Ill. (September 17, 2021) – Almost exactly thirteen years ago, Lansing was in the midst of a massive flooding event, one unlike the town had seen in the decade prior. According to the United States Geological Survey, the remnant of Hurricane Ike — which had pounded the coasts of Texas and Louisiana days before — joined with Tropical Storm Lowell — which had left many homeless in western Mexico — and dumped roughly nine inches of water on Lansing and the surrounding area.

Now, Lansing is taking steps to make sure its levee system is prepared for a similar event.

At a public meeting at the Fox Pointe pavilion on August 30, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made a proposal for a multi-million dollar plan that would rehabilitate and modify the existing levee and floodwall system along the Little Calumet River, which marks Lansing’s northern border.

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The Little Calumet River — and the Lansing levee, shown above — run along Lansing’s northern border east of Torrence Avenue. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

Feasibility study and Lansing levee’s status quo

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides “engineering and water resource solutions to the nation,” according to its website, and were brought in to help assess the current state of the Lansing-Calumet City levee.

“The Village of Lansing and Calumet City really recognize the flood risk that’s associated here with the Little Calumet River and they contacted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to initiate the study,” said Kaitlyn McClain, planner at the Chicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

The feasibility study for possible improvements to the levy found that the original levy built along the Little Calumet River in the 1980s has sunk in some areas due to natural causes, meaning the levee would be less effective in the event of a “1% annual exceedance event.” This 1% refers to a major storm that has the probability of occurring once every 100 years, more commonly referred to as a “100-year storm.”

McClain said other items of concern regarding the levee are erosion, trees and vegetation near or on the levee that making it more prone to failure, and encroachments, such as fences, garages, concrete, etc. She also said the Calumet City levee has experienced seepage and a failing floodwall.

Lansing’s knee-deep history

According to the Village of Lansing’s website, the worst flood in Lansing’s documented history occurred in November of 1990, and it was estimated to be a “25-year flood.”

The existence of the levee and floodwall in Lansing kept the surging Little Calumet River at bay in 1990, says the Village. But if the river had risen more than two feet higher, the waters would have overflowed into the surrounding area. More than three decades after that storm, it’s unknown if the current levee would be able to contain such a flood event again.

Before the levee was built, Lansing experienced massive rainfall in both 1981 and 1982, an event that many longtime residents remember to this day. Now-mayor Patty Eidam was a rookie police officer during the 1981 flood, and her memories of that time have impacted her support for the USACE’s proposed project.

“All of the homes along the Little Calumet River banks in Lansing flooded,” Eidam told The Lansing Journal. “Basements were filled with water and some homes had water on the upper levels. On 169th Court the water was over three feet deep on the street, so the homes on the south side of 169th Court suffered damage as well. Lansing Police, Fire, and Public Works helped the residents as best we could, with row boats. Wentworth Avenue was flooded and closed for days. It took many months — and in some cases more — for some of those families to recover and get their homes repaired. The pictures of that flood event and a second one less than two years later are devastating. I was so thankful when the levee was built and look forward to ensuring its stability.”

The video below was taken by Dave Ervin in 1981 and shows what flooding in Lansing was like before the levee. The video is used with permission.

According to McClain, Lansing’s levees largely did their job during the 2008 flooding event, but a levee failure near the border of Munster and Lansing resulted in massive flooding in the northeastern part of Lansing.

This photo shows the Riverwood Apartment Homes and the surrounding area during the flood of 2008 in Lansing. The flooding was caused in large part by a levee failure near the border of Lansing and Munster. (Photo provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)

How a levee works — and fails

A levee is a barrier — natural or otherwise — to keep water from flowing into an area. The Lansing levee along the south edge of the Little Calumet River keeps the river from overflowing in the event of a massive rainfall and subsequent flooding.

Most of Lansing’s levee is an earthen levee, which looks like little more than a grassy berm that gradually rises few feet above the surrounding area. Such levees require ample space, however, and aren’t always possible.

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An aerial view of the Lansing levee and Little Calumet River near the Riverwood Apartment Homes in Lansing. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)
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The same levee, from the ground level. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

In cases where houses or other structures are too near the river to make an earthen levee possible, floodwalls are used. For example, directly west of where the Little Calumet River flows under Wentworth Avenue, residential properties come right up to the river, and a concrete floodwall has been constructed to keep out rising floodwaters.

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A floodwall levee separates some Lansing residences from the Little Calumet River. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

The Lansing side of the levee stretches for 1.25 miles and is made of 4,500 feet of earthen levee and 2,150 feet of floodwall.

Earthen levees can fail as a result of tree roots weakening the integrity of the levee, when when gradual seepage occurs — causing the levee to erode into the water, or when water seeps through the soil of the levee to the other side.

“There are a lot of trees and woody vegetation growing on the levee. If one of these were to fail, that could pull up a large amount of embankment material, leaving a weak point,” McClain said of the Lansing levee.

She also said structures along a levee can cause weak points, as is the case in Lansing: “Those structural encroachments could create those small pathways underground to allow water to get through.”

According to Kaitlyn McClain of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, some of Lansing’s levee along the Little Calumet River could fail for a variety of reasons if a large storm hit. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

According to a USACE report, a failure of the levee system has the potential to affect an estimated 2,500 residential structures and 20 business structures. The same report referenced an inspection of the Lansing levee system performed by USACE, The Village of Lansing, and Robinson Engineering in 2018. The Lansing levee system was found to be in “unacceptable” condition at the time.

Tentative levee project and impact on Lansing residents

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ feasibility study concluded that the Lansing and Calumet City levees need rehabilitation and floodwall modifications in some areas.

The tentative plan offered includes restoring the levee system to a point where it can withstand a 100-year storm, clearing unwanted vegetation, clearing unwanted encroachments, repairing eroded areas along the bank of the Little Calumet River, repairing gates and drains as needed, repairing major components at pump stations, and developing a flood warning and preparedness plan.

This graphic shows where the current levee systems are along the Little Calumet River, and indicates where some floodwalls will be replaced. (Graphic provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Though the plan does not include any residential buyouts, it does require that the Village of Lansing obtain 15-foot easements for the perimeter of the levee. This 15 feet of land along the levee allows space for maintenance and repair, and helps maintain the integrity of the levee. The Village would contact commercial and residential property owners along the levee to create easement agreements specific to each property. Licensed appraisers will appraise the land, the Village will make an offer that includes compensation for work that needs to be done (such as structure or tree removal), and the property owner will need to accept the offer before the project moves forward.

USACE Project Manager Imad Samara told The Lansing Journal that there are roughly 130 residential properties along the Little Calumet River in Lansing and Calumet City that the two municipalities would need to reach easement agreements with before the construction begins.

Samara also said that although the 15-foot buffer along the levee should be cleared of trees, structures, and other encroachments, there is room for some reasonable negotiating with property owners.

Eidam said, “The repair and restoration of the levee ensures the safety of [residents’] families and property. It can stabilize their property values and protect the environment. The easements create a path for the necessary work to be done in a safe and timely manner.”

Levee cost and timeline

Samara told The Lansing Journal the total project cost is estimated at $15.6 million. It is unclear how much of that number would be allocated toward Lansing’s 1.25 miles of levee and how much would go to Calumet City’s two miles.

Samara also explained the cost of the project would be split between the federal government and local municipalities, with Lansing and Calumet City footing 35% of their respective levee costs, and the feds picking up the remaining 65%. Samara said the 35% percent includes the costs for Lansing and Calumet City to execute the easement agreements.

USACE project manager Imad Samara speaks to Lansing residents about the cost and timeline of the proposed levee project on August 30. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

Design for the project is currently slotted to begin in December of this year, with final construction plans made in 2024. If the project reaches final approval, Lansing and Calumet City will spend three-and-a-half years between next September and March of 2026 acquiring real estate easements, aided by USACE. The estimated construction completion date for the project is December of 2027.

“It’s going to take a long time for the village and the city to acquire these lands. We have to acquire all the lands for us to actually build this project,” Samara said during the August 30 public meeting.

Public comment

The period for public comment on this project closes on September 20. Comments may be emailed to [email protected] or mailed to:

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District
ATTN: Jason Zylka (Lansing/Calumet City)
231 S. LaSalle St. (Suite #1500)
Chicago, IL 60604

Mailed comments should be postmarked before September 20.

More information about the tentative project can be found in the USACE report.

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1 COMMENT

  1. This makes me think of a piece of acreage on 170th Street along an extension of the Little Calumet. My grandfather’s brother (also an onion farmer) had his farm on the north side of this street. When it rained and the river swelled there was a natural demarcation of the river’s reach. My great-uncle never planted in this section of his property as it was sure to flood in the future, as nature would have it. There is now a subdivision where his property was and on occasion the water has risen to their doorstep. When this housing construction first started the family would say to themselves, “Don’t they know that it floods there when it rains?” or “Those houses are right where Unc never planted”.

    In those days the water receded quickly–no standing water/flooding. Today, however, there is not enough ground to absorb the rain as concrete development just acts like a funnel directing the runoff to low-lying areas. If your new home requires flood insurance with no water in sight, be forewarned.

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