The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from a bloated reservoir into a river north of Des Moines faster than planned Thursday in an effort to empty as much from it as possible before more rain falls this weekend.
The release of water from the reservoir, while necessary to keep Saylorville Lake from overflowing, may also put pressure on a vulnerable levee on the already high Des Moines River that protects a neighborhood near the city's downtown. The levee failed in 1993 and 2008, flooding the working-class neighborhood of Birdland, and residents there are fearful that their homes could be inundated with water again.
The Corps began lowering panels one-by-one from an inflatable dam in Saylorville Lake earlier in the day to avoid producing a roaring current as the water pours over the reservoir's spillway, located 11 miles north of Des Moines.
Tom Heinold, an Army Corps flood risk management coordinator, said the decision to release water faster was made once it became clear the city was prepared for higher water and because the forecast showed that up to 3 inches of rain could fall Sunday and Monday.
Initially, it was expected to take about 15 hours to lower the dam's five panels. That was later moved up to about 11 hours.
"We want to get as much water out of the lake without causing undo damage," Heinold said. "We are going to lower them faster in an effort to release as much water as we can before it rains."
Some residents in the Birdland neighborhood packed up their belongings and headed to higher ground earlier this week, fearing that the levee could fail again. In 2008, some 135 homes and businesses were engulfed by the flooded Des Moines River after the levee gave way.
Heinold, who inspecting the levee Thursday morning, said he is hopeful it won't fail.
"We're seeing some very minor seepage and the clay plug the city installed is not seeping at all," he said. "There will be some erosion but I'm optimistic the levee will hold."
The river was expected to crest at 27.4 feet Thursday evening, more than 4 feet about flood state and below the 2008 level of 31.6 feet.
Residents have expressed annoyance that construction of a new levee, which has been in talks for 17 years, has yet to begin.
Gloria Spivey, who was packing up her home Thursday, wasn't optimistic a new levee would be built anytime soon.
"It took them 17 years to plan it out and it will take them 17 years to build it," said Spivey, who moved across the street when her home was condemned after the 2008 flood.
Heinold said planning and construction has been caught up in red tape and that he could understand that people were frustrated in the 200-home neighborhood.
"I would be too if I were them," he said. "I wish it were faster. If I had the power to make it faster, I would."
Construction of the levee had been slated to start in June but was delayed because of weeks of heavy rain.