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Oct 29

A Look Back with the County Executive: Economic Prosperity, Part 3 - Agriculture and Flooding

Posted on October 29, 2019 at 2:28 PM by County Executive

Like the industrial sector, agriculture in St. Charles County prospered during the 1990s and early 2000s. This was despite the fact that, due to residential growth, most of the agricultural production was in the 43 percent of the county designated as floodplain. This month, in the third part of a series on how the County, municipalities and businesses managed and encouraged prosperity and growth during this time frame, we’ll look at agricultural and other environmental development, and how flooding – including the flood of 1993 in particular – impacted farmers and the community.

The 2000 census classified eight percent of the county’s population as “rural,” and the assessed valuation of agricultural property had declined by $87,820. Only 564 identified their occupation as farming. While the total value of livestock went down 57 percent from 1990 to 2000, the value of crops produced in the county increased 32 percent as more acres were devoted to grain crops.1 By the turn of the century, the County Fair, which had moved to Wentzville in the 1970’s, had a new home at Rotary Park, developed by the Wentzville Rotary and Lions Clubs, Wentzville, and the County Fair Board. Nevertheless, the fair, like agricultural generally, no longer enjoyed the status once held in St. Charles County.2   

Flooding continued to threaten the livelihood of floodplain farmers, as the Missouri River reached its second highest stage since 1844 due to heavy rains in the fall of 1986. More than 2,500 county residents suffered losses and Portage des Sioux became an island for almost three weeks. People had not yet recovered from the flooding when, in December 1986, the Corps of Engineers announced that the L-15 project was economically unfeasible. Its cost benefit ratio had been lowered to 49 cents per dollar spent. Equally disappointing, in a major departure from federal policies from the previous 60 years, federal law now required the local public entity to contribute 20 percent of the cost of levee repairs after the flood. The Consolidated North County Levee District (CNCLD) worked to meet both crises. Since the federal government had not built the L-15, no Plan of Reclamation, which would have allowed the district to assess property owners for maintenance, had ever been filed by the district. While the Board of Supervisors solicited voluntary contributions from homeowners and farmers of the district, the levees could not have been rebuilt without the generosity of the two largest property-owners of the district, McDonnell-Douglas and Union Electric. To deal with the long-term flooding problem, the CNCLD filed a Plan of Reclamation, which was approved by the Circuit Court, and floated a $2.5 million bond issue to finance a scaled-down version of the levee improvements that the federal government had failed to provide.3 

Such improvements would have made no difference during the Great Flood of 1993, an event which not only destroyed crops, but threatened to disrupt interstate transportation. In the spring of 1993, when Missouri River flooding in Chesterfield had already closed I-64, the Mississippi floodwaters came within inches of closing I-70 at St. Peters. Such an occurrence would have crippled transportation in the entire Midwest. West Alton was covered by eight feet of water, and water entered many homes in Portage des Sioux for the first time in its history, as the entire floodplain was under water and thousands of homes were flooded.  

In the 15 years before May 1993, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) had paid out $32.5 million on 567 flood insurance claims. That month, the 353 newly purchased policies, which became effective in five days, contributed to the 2,043 new claims amounting to $60.8 million, nearly double the claims in the previous 15 years. Those new policy holders paid $183, 904 in premiums which, added to all premiums paid since 1978, came to $773,486.  FEMA paid out $9.3 million for replacement housing, $14.3 million for small business loans to flood victims, $5.1 for damage to county property, while MHDC supplied $9 million for replacement housing in the county. Seven million dollars were paid for levee repairs, while farmers received six million dollars in crop disaster payments and $1.8 million for sand removal.4 

Despite this federal largess, dissatisfaction with FEMA intensified after the water receded. Portage des Sioux enforced its own floodplain ordinances and very few of its homes were condemned pursuant to the “51 percent rule,” which mandated any structure requiring improvements costing 51 percent or more of the market value of the structure could not be rebuilt unless raised above the 100-year flood level. Under the watchful eye of FEMA, St. Charles County enforced the letter of the law and almost all the homes in West Alton were condemned. In Region Seven of FEMA, including St. Charles County, all jurisdictions were instructed to use pre-flood market value to determine whether the structure was damaged more than 50 percent. Across the Mississippi River, in the State of Illinois which is in Region Five, FEMA used replacement cost to enforce the 51 percent rule. When this was brought to their attention, FEMA backed down and allowed jurisdictions to use replacement costs. This meant that many structures that had previously been condemned could now be rehabilitated and reoccupied. In West Alton, it meant the difference between almost every structure having to be torn down and almost every structure being eligible for rehabilitation. The people of West Alton incorporated as a municipality so that in the next flood they, like Portage des Sioux, would be able to administer FEMA regulations themselves. Nevertheless, the population of West Alton declined from 1,067 in 1990 to 573 in 2000, while Portage des Sioux declined from 503 to 351 during the same decade.  

After the flood, St. Peters began working to build a levee to protect Old Town, and I-70 as well.  The Corps of Engineers approved the Old Town levee project, which also protected adjacent industrial development sites. The CNCLD, now with a Plan of Reclamation was able to finance its share of levee repair work with a bond issue. When the county flooded again in 1995, St. Charles officials decided against sandbagging. While the damage was not as extensive because of the buy-outs, President Clinton declared the county a disaster area and the government spent over $600,000 for levee repairs and cleanup.5 A few years later, FEMA required St. Charles County to enforce a “density floodway” that allowed development of only 18 percent of the land in the floodway, and allowed “no continuous fill.” With other changes to the state statute, FEMA could now force the county to enforce the density floodway ordinance preventing the Consolidated North County Levee District from raising its levees on the Missouri River, frustrating those seeking better levee protection. Federal bureaucrats would have an important role to play in future land-use decisions, especially in the floodplains.6 With pressure mounting to improve levee protection, the levee district board decided it would take an act of Congress to overcome the regulations that had killed the L-15. With the assistance of County Executive Ortwerth, they began working with their congressman and United States Senators to effect a change in the law. Congressman Talent amended legislation in 1996 allowing as 20-year level of protection and appropriating $250,000 for the corps to study the problem. Senator Ehlmann called it, “an effort to maintain the agricultural nature of that area, providing minimal agricultural protection and to make it financially possible for those people to continue to exist and to have their farms and businesses and homes in that part of St. Charles County.”7 Better levee protection, something that the county had been working toward for 60 years, was finally becoming a reality. 

After decades of struggle with environmental groups, the new Alton Dam facility opened in October 1989.  Another battle with federal bureaucrats was raging on the other end of the county, as residents and interest groups pushed for a federal cleanup of the former uranium processing plant at Weldon Spring. The Department of Energy took control of the site in 1985 and began an extensive clean up. While the Bush administration budget cuts threatened to delay the completion of the project in 1989, the federal budget the next year contained $27.3 million for the cleanup. The Department of Energy and EPA proposed construction of a facility for disposal of 800,000 cubic yards of hazardous waste at a cost of $187 million in 1992. The Department of Energy (DOE) released the first 541,000 gallons of treated water from the quarry into the Missouri River the following year. The plan called for a 72-acre watertight “disposal cell,” and an incinerator to clean up contamination from manufacturing on the site. By the time workers capped the cell in 2001, it contained 1.5 million cubic yards of hazardous waste.8        

The federal Clean Air Act was a third area of contention with the federal government, which required Stage II vapor recovery nozzles on all gasoline pumps by 1989. St. Charles County, along with the entire St. Louis Missouri metropolitan area, was designated a “modified non-attainment” area by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Two of the twelve monitoring stations in the metropolitan region were located at Orchard Farm and West Alton. The EPA, under the authority granted to it by the Clean Air Act, threatened to bring all growth in the area to a halt by imposing sanctions, including a cut-off of federal highway funds and a moratorium on new industry, if Missouri failed to meet the new clean air standards promulgated by the Clinton administration. Joe Ortwerth complained that the new standards, “will guarantee that new industry will not choose to locate in metropolitan areas across this country and will greatly encourage existing industries that desire to expand to leave the metropolitan area and relocate in rural areas where they won’t have to conform to these exceedingly harsh, overly onerous and for the most part unnecessary clean-air standards.”9 The General Assembly required sale of a special Missouri blend of smog-reducing gasoline in the St. Louis area. The Gateway Clean Air Program, an enhanced auto emissions inspection and maintenance program, featuring special inspection stations, was introduced for the St. Louis City and several surrounding Missouri counties in 2000.  Later, the Gateway Vehicle Inspection Program (GVIP) served as the emissions testing and safety inspection program for vehicles registered in the St. Louis ozone nonattainment area, which includes St. Louis City, and Franklin, Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Louis counties. The GVIP, which began operations on Oct. 1, 2007, tested all 1996 and newer gas-powered vehicles, and 1997 and newer diesel-powered vehicles registered in the ozone nonattainment area. The special inspection stations were replaced by over 700 public GVIP inspection stations, over 100 of which were in St. Charles County, where inspection is automatically uploaded and available to the Department of Revenue contract license offices and online registration system for inspection verification.10  

While such federal mandates were used by environmental and anti-growth advocates to slow development in St. Charles County, local governments did address environmental issues. St. Peters built Recycle City to process recycled goods; initiated the curbside Blue Bag recycling program to reduce the amount of trash taken to landfills; and developed Earth Centre, a yard waste composting facility. The National Arbor Day Foundation recognized St. Peters as a Tree City USA due to its comprehensive urban forestry program. St. Charles County established a recycling program, and also adopted a stream bank protection ordinance to reduce erosion and sedimentation, stabilize the banks of natural watercourses, and control storm water runoff. The first of its kind in Missouri, the measure prohibited land disturbance within 50 feet of either side of the Dardenne, Peruque, Femme Osage, McCoy, and Big Creeks, and within 25 feet of all other watercourses shown on maps produced by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).  

1. MCDC Demographic Profile 3, 2000 Census – St. Charles County; Missouri State Census Data Center for Missouri counties. 

2. Interview with Robert Wohler. Census Bureau’s 2009 Community Survey.

3. Ehlmann, Conflict at the Confluence, 64.

4. St. Charles Post, May, 24, 1995. 

5. Journal, Dec. 29, 1995.

6.  Ehlmann, Conflict at the Confluence, 76.

7. St. Charles Post, Oct. 8, 1996; Journal, Dec. 28, 1986; Ehlmann, Conflict at the Confluence, 86.

8.  Journal, Jan. 2, 1994.

9. St. Charles Post, July 21, 1997.