Riverside trustees will be faced with a huge decision when they meet, virtually, to cap off an extraordinary year on Dec. 17. It’s not an overstatement that its decision could change the face – well, the west face at least – of the village.

Trustees are expected to vote on whether or not to give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the greenlight to complete the design phase for a floodwall that will stretch along the Des Plaines River from Park Place to the BNSF railroad embankment and along Park Place from Groveland to Woodside.

To give a sense of the height of that floodwall, take a look at the levee that extends the length of Groveland Avenue, add two feet to the height and then extend it along the entire length described above.

Along its length, because ground level changes along that stretch, the wall will appear to be anywhere between three and 11 feet tall, sheathed in concrete. Just so we know what we’re looking at, picture those prefab faux-stone walls that serve as sound barriers along interstate highways. Something like that.

There will be some property owners south of Forest Avenue, along the southern half or so of West Avenue, whose properties will be impacted the most, from a visual perspective. Their views over the river to the forest preserves to the west will disappear and be replaced by a concrete wall.

For them, it’s a real hardship – both visually and financially – and something that can’t be discounted.

This is no simple case, however, because the construction of such a floodwall will also relieve a hardship suffered by more than 200 households in the flood basin just east of the Des Plaines River south of Park Place.

Recent history has shown that flooding events are getting more frequent and storms worse. Seven of the Des Plaines River’s 11 highest historic crests at Riverside – the U.S. Weather Service data available online stretches back to 1944 — have occurred since 2008.

The two highest happened within the past decade. Rains in April 2013 produced the record-high crest and devastating flooding. In May 2020, when rains brought the second-highest crest on record, the area came within inches of suffering a repeat. 

This is a once-in-a-lifetime, perhaps the only time, Riverside will be able to provide flood protection to this area of the village and have someone else foot the lion’s share of the bill.

The federal government and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago are earmarking more than $7 million for this project – far more than the village could raise on its own.

While a decision to move forward with design on Dec. 17 doesn’t obligate the village to build the floodwall, such a decision really serves that purpose. Once design is complete, the village will be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars if it backs out. 

At the same time, the village will be negotiating with property owners on compensation for easements or entire parcels, so the Dec. 17 vote is a big deal.

What trustees must keep in mind is what decision produces the greatest good for the village.