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Des Moines neighborhood watches, waits as dam is lowered at rain-swollen lake, river rises

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slowly released water from a bloated reservoir into a river that winds toward Des Moines and a vulnerable levee protecting a downtown neighborhood Thursday.

Tom Heinold, an Army Corps flood risk management coordinator, said the engineers began lowering panels from an inflatable dam one by one to avoid producing a "roaring current" in the Des Moines River as water tips over the spillway at Saylorville Lake, 11 miles north of the city.

"We put it (a panel) down and then let the lake level rise a little bit, then put it down a little bit more and let the lake level rise again," Heinold said.

He said it would take about 15 hours to lower all five panels in the dam.

The release is a critical test of a levee that failed in 1993 and 2008, flooding the working-class neighborhood of Birdland. Some residents evacuated their homes in the days preceding Thursday's controlled release, although officials did not issue an evacuation order.

City officials were monitoring the river and levees, and the river was expected to stay within the levee system when it crests Thursday evening at 27.4 feet, more than 4 feet about flood stage, according to the Army Corps of Engineer' river gauge website.

"We'll be spending a great deal of time watching specific areas at Birdland," said Bill Stowe, director of Des Moines Public Works. "We'll be walking the entire area."

Birdland residents have expressed annoyance that the construction of a new levee, which has been in discussion for 17 years, has yet to begin.

"There is quite a bit of frustration," said Larry Clark, a Birdland resident. "It takes 17 years to fix a levee? C'mon."

Andrew Krantz of Eagle Iron Works said he and other residents are upset that the slow pace of change could irrevocably damage the community, driving residents and investment away.

"They want industry here. They want business, they want people here. How do you build this? This is not the way," he said.

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.

"We recommended that the contractor not start that construction, of course, because for him to punch a hole in the levee right now and start reconstructing it ... that would be suicide," Heinold said.

He said construction would have to wait until the river retreated, which may not happen until August.

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Associated Press Writer Luke Meredith contributed to this report.