Flood prevention efforts helped by legislation

In February 2018, after floodwaters caused destruction in Watseka, Illinois, for the third time in as many years, State Representative Tom Bennett (R-Gibson City) knew something more needed to be done.

“Flooding is unlike any other natural disaster we have in Illinois,” Bennett said. “There are lots of things an individual can do to prepare for an ice storm or even a tornado. You can stock up on canned food, you can buy a generator, you can have a safe room in your house. Floods are different: they require entire communities or entire regions to work together to take action.”

Last year, Bennett began looking into the causes of the flooding in his district and others like it. He also examined the many overlapping state and federal programs, and the responses of the different levels of government.

“We found that the local residents and first responders were doing everything humanly possible to limit flood damage, and that the state and federal programs helped provide support,” Bennett explained. “But I wondered if there wasn’t more that could be done in advance to prepare for these floods and prevent or mitigate them.”

One finding was that floods can have their origins many miles away from the hardest-hit areas, and can sometimes be exacerbated by decisions made by faraway communities. Flood prevention doesn’t have to begin when volunteers start filling sandbags – it often needs to occur months or years in advance.

Bennett organized meetings of emergency responders and elected officials from throughout his district. But it became clear the group needed an even larger geographical reach since so many of the five-county district’s rivers originate elsewhere.

To bring community leaders over a wide geographical area together in the name of regional action on flood prevention, Bennett spearheaded the creation of the East-Central Illinois and West-Central Indiana Flood Alliance. The alliance brought together officials from throughout the bi-state watershed of the Kankakee, Vermilion, Mackinaw and Iroquois Rivers to discuss methods of stopping the frequent flooding on the rivers.

Bennett invited state and federal agencies with responsibility for flood prevention to attend the meetings and discuss their programs; agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA), State Water Survey and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“There was a lot of good, helpful information out there, and a lot of local leaders who could put it to good use, but we found that there hadn’t been many times when everyone had gotten into one room and really put it all together,” Bennett said.

Soon, flood-prevention officials and local leaders were exchanging information about the permitting process for floodplain development, the details of the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and the requirements and benefits of joining the National Flood Insurance Program. They also discussed how to create IEMA-approved local mitigation plans.

Dull and tedious information, Bennett says, until the water starts rising.

Most importantly, alliance members were building working relationships with each other and with the state and federal partners they would need to rely upon in efforts to mitigate or prevent future floods.

Bennett asked task force members for recommendations for legislative changes that needed to be made to help prevent future floods. An idea was presented to him by a group of local officials including Kankakee County Board Chairman Andy Wheeler.

“He mentioned that the county had a river conservancy district, but it was geographically limited only to the area along the river – that it needed to be able to spread out to the various tributaries in order to really be effective in implementing flood-prevention plans,” Bennett said.

In response, Bennett and Rep. Lindsay Parkhurst (R-Kankakee) introduced House Bill 2583, which would allow river conservancy districts to expand their jurisdiction – subject to local voter approval in a referendum – to encompass entire counties or multi-county areas if necessary. It permits the district to change its name, if necessary, to reflect its new geographical configuration.

Conservancy districts are governed by a five-member board appointed by the local governments in their defined area. They have responsibility for maintaining ditches, streams and other waterways that carry storm runoff or drainage to larger rivers. Conservancy districts can construct levees, dams or sewers to help with flood control. Expanding the conservancy district’s jurisdiction would help it to conduct flood-prevention projects over a larger area.

Reflecting the statewide nature of the problem, Bennett reached out to colleagues from both parties who represent areas of the state covered by conservancy districts to sign them up as co-sponsors. The bill seemed to be moving along smoothly until Bennett was seriously injured in a car accident on March 7, the day after a dozen bi-partisan co-sponsors signed onto the bill.

“I was sitting in the hospital wondering if I was going to be able to get back to Springfield in time to move the bill before the committee deadline,” Bennett said. “And then Rep. Parkhurst gave me a big assist.”

Though he did not return to the House floor until April 30, Bennett continued to promote the bill via phone calls with colleagues, and Parkhurst; as chief co-sponsor; stepped up and presented the bill in committee, where it passed unanimously on March 21.

“It really was a team effort, and I appreciated Rep. Parkhurst’s help and all the members of the House who kept this legislation moving,” Bennett said. Three weeks later, HB 2583 passed 112-0.

In the Senate, there was debate over whether existing law already allowed the kind of expansions that Bennett sought. After exhaustive review, it was decided that such expansions were already allowed, but that passing legislation allowing the name changes would clarify any question about what the existing statute permitted. The bill was amended accordingly, and sent back to the House, which concurred with the amendment 116-0 in late May, the question of geographical expansion for conservancy districts seemingly answered.

Meanwhile, the flood alliance continues its work. This spring the Corps of Engineers conducted a seminar on flood response training. While efforts continue to prevent floods, the Corps still stresses preparedness by local officials to meet the challenge if the waters start to rise once more.

“This is a big job, and it’s going to take many years and region-wide involvement to prevent these disasters in the future,” Bennett said. “But after what these communities have been through in the last few years, it will be well worth it if we can prevent this kind of flooding from happening again.”