Riverside got its first public look last week at just how big and intrusive a proposed floodwall along the Des Plaines River could be for West Avenue homeowners, but for the first time since the floodwall was proposed in 2013 a chorus of residents from the area voiced strong support for the project.

During the village board’s Dec. 3 meeting, which was conducted via Zoom, about a dozen residents who live on Groveland, Lincoln and West avenues urged village trustees to move ahead with planning for the floodwall, which would extend from Park Place south to the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad embankment and along Park Place from Groveland Avenue to Woodside Road.

That support could have an impact on whether or not the village decides to move forward with the project, which in the past has been strongly opposed by some homeowners along West Avenue and some who live north of the project area on Maplewood Road.

“Personally, I think getting input from the people repeatedly affected by flooding is powerful,” said Village President Ben Sells in a phone interview following the meeting.

While trustees made no decisions last week, they are expected to resume discussing the floodwall project at their meeting on Dec. 17, which will be conducted remotely via Zoom and on Riverside TV.

Sells said trustees will vote on moving ahead with the design phase of the project at that meeting. Voting to move ahead with the design does not obligate the village to build the floodwall. However, if the village decided to kill the project once the design is completed, Riverside will be on the hook for money expended by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get to that point.

As of last week, the Army Corps had expended roughly $130,000, with another $638,000 in funding from the federal government and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago earmarked to complete the design phase.

Elected officials now will go into their Dec. 17 meeting having heard strong support from several residents whose lives have been impacted by repeated flooding over the past decade or so.

“Our first 18 years here were flood-free,” said Groveland Avenue resident Richard Rankin in emailed comments read into the record by Village Manager Jessica Frances during the meeting. “But, over the last decade it seems there are more and more close calls and flood events. …

“The river I moved across from in 1990 now exists in a very different macro-hydrologic system.”

Michelle Rietema, whose family moved to Groveland Avenue in the fall of 2012, were welcomed to town the following April with record flooding that, she said, “changed our lives forever.”

The entire first floor of the home was damaged by flood waters, and the family lost “the sense of safety” that had attracted the family to Riverside in the first place.

“The constant foreboding every time it rains has never gone away,” said Rietema in emailed comments read by Village Clerk Cathy Haley. “We are very aware of the potential for this to happen again and unless the city joins us in choosing options to help lessen the damage, both physically to the properties in the area as well as mentally for the residents who have to deal with the fallout each time the flood waters rise.”

Those stories were echoed by others who live in the low-lying area immediately east of the Des Plaines River south of Park Place, telling trustees of costly repeated renovation, the skyrocketing cost of flood insurance and the loss of personal belongings.

But, support was not universal. A small number of West Avenue homeowners whose backyards have river frontage and whose access to the river and natural views will be forever altered by a floodwall, voiced their continued opposition to it.

Depending on exactly where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers places the wall,  sections of the concrete-sheathed floodwall south of Forest Avenue will be anywhere from 3 to 11 feet above ground level, with wall heights averaging between 4 and 7 feet tall. 

The tallest wall heights can be reduced by moving the floodwall farther inland from the riverbank, but that will result in a couple of homeowners losing large sections of their backyards and will place the wall much closer to their homes. 

The Army Corps also requires a 15-foot easement on either side of the wall where no trees or woody vegetation can be grown.

“There’s this big wall in my yard now, which is much closer to my house along a 15-foot right of way or easement,” said Patrick O’Laughlin, whose property faces the “high wall or close wall” dilemma. 

“So there’s no view at all out the back except this concrete wall and wires. It’s not pleasant and it’s going to really kill my property value.”

Still a long way out

The presentation last week to the village board by Army Corps of Engineers project manager Jeff Zuercher was meant as an update and to publicly present images of what a floodwall south of Forest Avenue would look like. 

Elected officials made no decisions, and the Army Corps is still trying to determine the final alignment for the new section of floodwall behind the West Avenue properties. That alignment ought to be worked out by spring 2021, said Zuercher, and final design engineering would not be completed until spring to mid-2022, depending on how long any property acquisition takes.

In addition to the new section of floodwall south of Forest Avenue, new sheet pilings would be driven into the river bank behind the existing levee along Groveland Avenue. The new floodwall would be two feet higher than the existing levee, which has never been overtopped during flood events.

Water inundates the Groveland/Park Place/Lincoln flood basin through low points at either end of the levee. That’s why the proposal calls for the floodwall to extend at the same elevation east along the north side of Park Place and south of Forest Avenue. Plans also call for a floodgate across Forest Avenue and a pair of pump stations to keep sewers from surcharging. 

At the earliest, work on the floodwall might begin in the fall/winter of 2022 and it is expected to last for about two years.

The total cost of the project is estimated at almost $7.2 million, with almost $4.7 million coming from the federal government. The remainder, about $2.5 million, has been pledged by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.