The floodwall initiative gained steam following devastating flooding in Riverside in 2013 (above), which inundated properties along West, Groveland, Pine, Lincoln and Forest avenues. | Village of Riverside

After a delay of more than two years, there’s movement on a project to build a floodwall along the east bank of the Des Plaines River in Riverside from the BNSF Railroad right-of-way north to Park Place and then east to Woodside Road.

But following a presentation on March 2 by the new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team assigned to the project, elected officials were left wondering exactly where things stood.

“I would like more information on the process. Our residents are looking for more information on the process,” said Trustee Megan Claucherty, who was elected to the village board in 2021 at a time when the project had stalled and no new information was forthcoming from the Army Corps.

“We sit in a posture where this hasn’t been fully approved by our board and I don’t feel personally as if I have nearly enough information on the details,” she said.

Indeed, in many ways, it seems, nothing of substance has happened with the floodwall project, at least publicly, since Riverside trustees voted in December 2020 to give the Army Corps of Engineers the green light to design the wall.

Village Manager Jessica Frances on March 2 introduced Fele’cia Cummings, the Army Corps’ new project manager for the floodwall initiative, and her project team. The person who had headed up the project for the past five years, Jeff Zuercher, is no longer assigned to the Riverside project but attended the March 2 meeting.

According to Frances, Army Corps of Engineers staffing shortages had contributed to the pause on the Riverside floodwall. With the floodwall design at the 50% stage, Frances said, it was a good time to bring the matter back in front of the village board and introduce officials to the new team.

Definitive takeaways were few from the Army Corps’ presentation. One of the most noteworthy bits of information was that the Army Corps has set April 4 as the date for a new survey of the floodwall alignment, which will give officials and residents a much better idea of exactly how the proposed wall will be in relation to the riverbank south of Forest Avenue, and how high.

The Army Corps had done such a survey in late 2021, taking the time to drive wood stakes into the ground and marking elevations. However, because it was done during the winter, the village was unable to run a line to illustrate wall heights and nothing more came of it.

Another takeaway from the March 2 presentation was the revelation that the Army Corps possesses much more detailed engineering drawings than they’ve released to the public – ones that show the proposed wall alignment and how much such a wall would encroach on private properties.

The revelation came in response to a complaint on March 2 by Trustee Edward Hannon that the bird’s eye view plan included in the village board packet left him wondering what it was supposed to depict.

“I’m wildly confused what I’m supposed to take away from this,” Hannon said.

To further clarify, Yuki Galisanao, the geotechnical engineer assigned to the Army Corps’ Riverside team, pulled up the much more detailed “background” presentation slides, which also appeared to pinpoint the locations of two proposed pump stations, one north and one south of Forest Avenue.

The Landmark has requested copies of those newly disclosed slides from both the village and the Army Corps of Engineers but had not received them prior to the newspaper’s print deadline. 

Galisanao also confirmed that the floodwall heights south of Forest Avenue would be anywhere from about 1 foot, where it ties into high ground at the railroad right-of-way, to between 7 and 8 feet closer to Forest Avenue.

She also said her team had initial conversations with the Army Corps’ real estate team to formulate a plan to acquire easements or property from West Avenue homeowners. Still on the table is the possibility of the Army Corps acquiring entire residential properties, which could also have an effect on the final location of the floodwall south of Forest Avenue.

The location of the floodwall north of Forest Avenue appears to be much more straightforward. Sheet piling, said Galisanao, would be driven into the existing embankment along Groveland Avenue and on public property north of Park Place to a correct height. Whatever remained visible above ground would be encased in concrete.

But exactly what the floodwall will end up looking like is still very much up in the air. In 2020, the village board, the Riverside Preservation Commission and the village’s engineering firm spent much time coming up with acceptable solutions and assured residents the project would undergo review required by the National Historic Preservation Act.

To date, that preservation review has not been done and the Army Corps confirmed that when it does submit plans for review to the Illinois State Historic Preservation Officer, they will be the least-costly option.

“There were a few options that [the village’s engineering] firm looked at that were much more enhanced and expensive that would not be within the least-cost proposal we would have for you at this point in time,” Zuercher told trustees on March 2.

While the state review may result in recommendations to beautify the floodwall beyond the least-costly option, that likely will come at a cost to Riverside, one that’s unknown at this time.

The unknown cost impact may be one of the more concerning aspects of the project at this point. The $7.2 million price tag placed on the project back in 2018 has not changed and does not account for increased costs for construction and property acquisition in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the Army Corps might be able to get additional federal funding for its share of the project, the non-federal share would remain at 20%. While the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Illinois pledged to cover 20% of the initial estimated budget, there’s no guarantee they’ll contribute more funds, particularly for aesthetic improvements above and beyond what the Army Corps agrees to fund.

“So that’s an item for consideration for the village board as well,” Frances said.

Cummings said the Army Corps would initiate the state historic preservation review soon, although she did not have a firm date for it.

She did say they wanted to bring the Riverside Preservation Commission into the conversation as a “consulting party” and asked the village which other agencies they should loop into the conversation.

Trustee Aberdeen Marsh-Ozga, who was a member of the Preservation Commission when the village board gave the go-ahead for the design phase in December 2020, told Cummings that the National Park Service ought to be involved but that there were several others as well.

“There’s a full list of parties that need to be involved, and I think you need to do the due diligence and just notify all of them,” Marsh-Ozga said.

According to the most recent estimated project timeline, the earliest construction might start on the floodwall, barring more delays or either party deciding to pull out, would be late 2025 or early 2026.