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$3 Million Study Could Identify Opportunities For Louisville Flood Protection Improvements

Louisville is one of 38 cities to receive federal funding to study its flood protection systems, the Metropolitan Sewer District said Thursday. It will work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to identify the best ways to upgrade the city’s flood infrastructure, which experts say will be critical.

The city has 16 flood pump stations, some dating back 65 years. They become more difficult to maintain and improve with each passing year, said MSD chief of operations Brian Bingham.

"The parts for these are not made any longer so we either make them ourselves, we have contractors that make them or we try to find other systems that are being removed from service and get what we need from those," he said.

Bingham said MSD has identified about $1 billion worth of necessary repairs and upgrades to the city’s flood protection system. The agency has repeatedly stated the need to overhaul Louisville's aging flood protection and other infrastructure, and wants to raise rates to help pay for that work.

Now, with $3 million in federal funding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will study the issue in more detail with staff and support from MSD.

Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell announced the funding Thursday as a result of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. Completion of the study could set MSD up for future federal funding to enact improvements. A representative from McConnell's office said MSD would not be able to get future Corps of Engineers funding without the study.

MSD already has a 20-year, $4.3 billion Critical Repair and Reinvestment Plan that identifies the area's greatest infrastructure needs. Bingham said the federally-funded study announced Thursday will use information already collected by MSD but not replicate it.

Louisville's flood protection system is used to both keep and pump water out when bodies such as Beargrass Creek and the Ohio River overflow.

"We love our river, but it can be a real beast to deal with at times when we get those larger storms throughout the whole region that come down on us," Bingham said.

Large storms, such as those that could overwhelm the current infrastructure, could happen more often in the coming decades, according to James Noel, service coordination hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s Ohio River Forecast Center. That's a result of Louisville's changing climate.

Bingham would not say whether climate change will be a part of the conversation as the study moves forward. He said the Corps of Engineers will determine the scope of the effort. But he acknowledged that there has been an increase in extreme storms in Louisville.

"Over the last 11 years, we've had more days with more than three inches of rain than we have in the past 40 years," Bingham said.

Sarah Lynn Cunningham, president of the Kentucky Conservation Committee and a former MSD engineer, said she would not expect the study to focus on the effects of climate change.

"I can't imagine McConnell setting aside money to look at anything related to the climate, because he doesn't even acknowledge that we've got a problem," Cunningham said.

The study should take about 18 months, said MSD director of intergovernmental affairs Wes Sydnor. How work will proceed is not yet known.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.