McBAINE — Two Caterpillar tractors hauled tons of dirt on Wednesday in the McBaine bottoms to rebuild a levee that protects thousands of acres along the Missouri River.
Replacing a 300-foot section of the 11-mile-long levee, which has fallen into Perche Creek, became a higher priority after the Army Corps of Engineers announced that record reservoir releases upstream would cause Missouri River flooding throughout the summer.
Work began Monday to reconstruct the levee, and it should be finished Thursday, McBaine Levee District President John Sam Williamson, who farms in the bottoms, said.
The project, which Williamson said would cost less than $15,000, is funded primarily by the city of Columbia, the Missouri Department of Conservation and local farmers.
The levee protects approximately 4,500 acres of farmland for flood levels up to 33 feet — the upper end of forecasts for the Missouri River this summer. It also protects 12 wells that provide drinking water to Columbia, a city wetlands that treats sewage and the water treatment plant.
"All we can do is what we can do," Williamson said, standing atop crumbled remnants of the original levee. "Farming is kind of like gambling."
Erosion is worse on the district's secondary levee, a lower levee that runs for a mile and a half along the Missouri River. It protects 130 acres of farmland and three of Columbia's drinking water wells.
A nearly 1,000-foot stretch of that levee has fallen into the river. Cottonwood and sycamore trees lie strewn up and down the bank, still green with leaves and freshly fallen from land the river overtook. The levee district first noticed slight erosion last August, Williamson said, but the river has claimed at least 15 more feet of the bank since then.
"If the water keeps eroding the bank down there and the levee keeps falling in, pretty soon it will all be gone," McBaine Levee District engineer Joseph Gibbs said. "Or, if the water keeps rising, it'll pour through that hole that's missing, and it'll flood all that farmland and the wells."
Connie Kacprowicz of the Columbia Water and Light Department said the water treatment plant itself is in no danger of flooding and that the staff is prepared to access wells in the bottoms even if the area floods. Even in the flood of 1993, Kacprowicz said, the plant maintained access to the wells, which also are safe from contamination in case of flood.
"The City of Columbia has an interested stake in those levees, and anything we can do to protect the water treatment plant is in everyone's interest," she said. "The levees being there, the levees being washed away — all of those are contingencies that the staff has been preparing for."
Gibbs said work to restore a secondary levee should have begun days ago, but the levee district cannot proceed because the Army Corps requires it go through a permitting process, which he said takes months.
Kenny Pointer of the Army Corps' Jefferson City office said what the levee district wants to do may or may not require a permit. If the work involves the Missouri River or any nearby wetlands, it would require a permit. Gibbs said the last time the district needed to determine whether its work affected wetlands, it took at least three weeks.
The McBaine levee is one of at least 58 in Missouri that the Army Corps forecast to be overtopped once releases reach their peak on the Missouri River.