Illinois River Levees: Sizing Up Their Impact on Flooding and Risk

Gregory J. Byard, Ryan Meekma, Brad McVay, Sally McConkey

Research output: Book/Report/Conference proceedingTechnical report


The Illinois River is separated from its floodplain by a series of levees constructed and modified over time. These levees are subject to overtopping, but the frequency of the critical flood event varies from levee system to system and is not generally known. Investigations to consider reconnecting the river and its floodplain, building resilient river communities, and potentially diverting floods to agricultural land all require information about the land area, land use, structures, and population of each levee protected area. The objective of this research is to provide a comprehensive description of the leveed area along the Illinois River. Using the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) National Levee Database (NLD), levee systems along the Illinois River were identified based on the availability of highly detailed topographic data. Each levee system was then analyzed in conjunction with the Upper Mississippi River System Flow Frequency Study (UMRSFFS) to determine the critical flood event expected to overtop each levee system. Based on this overtopping analysis, the areas of inundation landward of each levee system were studied using flooding depth and demographic and economic analysis to produce a representative summary of the risk for each levee system. Flooding depth grids were produced for each levee system representing the extent and depth of inundation expected when a levee system first overtops. Economic analysis included both investigation of average agricultural production per levee system using United States Department of Agriculture soil and crop data, and structural risk exposure using the Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazus-MH risk analysis software. The 35 levee systems studied have an annual chance of overtopping ranging from 6.9% to less than 0.2% (or 14 to >500 years on average). The average depth of flooding for a levee system due to overtopping ranges from 5.3 feet to 24.1 feet. Across all levee systems analyzed (206,000 acres), the average depth of flooding due to overtopping was 15.4 feet. This suggests that more than 3.1 million acre-feet of floodplain storage is currently disconnected from the Illinois River by the studied levees. The average gross economic value of crops grown within the levee systems included in this analysis was approximately 130 million dollars per year (based on crop years 2010–2012). Nearly 80% of the land area within the levee systems is devoted to the production of corn and soybeans. The remainder of the land area is evenly divided (about 5% each) among developed lands, open water, and pasture/hay. The population living within the Illinois River levee systems decreased approximately 1% between 2000 and 2010 to just over 9,500. More than 90% of the studied population lives within just 3 of the 35 studied levee systems. Although diversity increased slightly between 2000 and 2010, the population remains predominately white. Nearly 60% of the population is aged 18-64 with 26% less than 18 and 14% greater than 64. Hazards analysis using the Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazus-MH utility and overtopping projections produces an estimate of total exposure to the General Building Stock (GBS). These exposure estimates range, in terms of full building replacement value, from insignificant for small agricultural levees to more than 660 million dollars in developed urban areas. Expected damages due to overtopping range from insignificant to more than 155 million dollars. The total exposure to the GBS across all studied levee systems was more than $1.1 billion. Damages to the GBS due to overtopping of all levee systems is expected to be more than 265 million dollars.
Original languageEnglish (US)
PublisherIllinois State Water Survey
StatePublished - 2014

Publication series

NameISWS Contract Report 2014-03


  • ISWS


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