Kansas City leaders broke ground Wednesday afternoon on the last leg of a $529 million project aimed at improving 17 miles of levees along the Kansas and Missouri rivers.
Called the KC Levees Program, the construction is being done to protect 32 square miles from flooding. The area is home to 7,000 structures — commercial, industrial and residential — representing $25 billion in investments.
Area leaders celebrated the project, pointing to it as a major investment that will have even greater returns by protecting the community and opening the door for additional economic development. They also highlighted the disastrous floods that struck the region in years past, namely the Great Flood of 1993 and Great Flood of 1951, as signs of the need to provide that protection.
Raising the levee is expected to reduce the risk of flooding along the Kansas River by approximately 200%, said Col. Travis Rayfield of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is behind the civil engineering of the project. Over the course of the build, there will be more than 200 utility connections relocated or modified and more than 1.3 million cubic yards of soil will be moved — the equivalent of filling the Hyvee Arena five times over — all while synchronizing the project within the second-largest railroad hub in the country, Rayfield said.
“The technical challenges are high and our timeline is fast,” Rayfield said. “This is exciting work for the Corps.”
Construction on the Missouri River levee system began in 2019 and the full project is expected to be finished by 2026. Future developments of the levee system are concentrated in the Central Industrial District, which includes the West Bottoms in Kansas City, and moves along the Kansas river through the Armourdale and Argentine districts in Kansas City, Kansas.
The project will heighten the levees up to 4 feet along the rivers. Drainage structures will be modified and relief wells will be installed. And some pump stations will be removed and others added or repaired.
Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor David Alvey recalled in public remarks Wednesday visiting the gymnasium of El Centro Academy in Argentine recently — a trip back to his former grade school. The building, constructed in 1940, would have been under 15 feet of water during the destructive flood of 1951, he said, noting “the devastation” of that time.
“That could have been something that just really wiped out the spirit of the community,” Alvey said. “But in fact it did not. In fact, they came together to say we want to rebuild, we want to reestablish, we want to continue to grow.”
Alvey said the levee projectwould be too big of a lift for local governments to handle alone. And he said he expects the investments, helped by federal grants, will spark new development, provide greater connection to the cities on both sides of the state line and “bridge us to our past (and) to our future.”
“That’s what infrastructure is about,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, 3rd Congressional District of Kansas, called it “inspiring” to see the work being done. And she said the destructive floods of the past are known all too well by those who have lived in the community for generations.
“When infrastructure fails, everybody knows it. When infrastructure succeeds, everybody succeeds — whether we realize the role that infrastructure has played in it or not,” said Davids, a Democrat and the vice chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas called the project “exceedingly exciting.” And he hopes it is “a sign of what more we can do” as discussions continue about further development of the city’s West Bottoms neighborhood.
As the project moves forward, Lucas said it is important “we don’t forget its past, its formation and its founding.”
“I think all of you played a part in getting us here today. I thank you for the opportunity to sit here on a sunny day and look at progress. It’s not something we always get a chance to do in local government,” Lucas said.