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It's becoming too much — even for the most diehard river rats.

Five of the 10 worst floods ever recorded on the Rock River in Moline have happened this century; in just 19 years. Some say it's no coincidence that seven of the 10 highest crests have occurred since the beginning of the development burst along John Deere Expressway in 1996.

The increased runoff from elevated big-box stores and massive parking lots pours into the silt-thick river that already is being hit by changes in drainage patterns along the Rock River valley and by climate change.

At Len Brown's North Shore Inn at the Rock River and 7th Street, retired educator Kathie Womack was mustered into the flood fight following the death of her father, Len Brown, in 2002.

Almost every year since then, the watering hole has been a watery island — surrounded on all sides by floodwater.

"My dad raised the building, and that's the only reason we don't get water inside," Womack said Friday. "I haven't been able to use my west parking lot this year.

"I think the new Rock River bridge is having an impact, too, because it causes the ice jams. A big tree on the west side of this place is the only thing that saved my building during the ice jams in 2017.

"I prepare for floods in the fall, and I have everything put up and put away. You don't know what's going to happen. You have to prepare for everything. This is the fourth time we've had the water come up this season. We're having multiple floods almost every year."

Massive growth unleashed

Walmart and Lowe's came to Moline in 1996, and the corridor has exploded ever since.

The Kohl's-Target development came around the same time, and UnityPoint-Trinity built just across 7th Street. All the way to the East Moline border, John Deere Expressway kept growing.

A giant Menards replaced a smaller one, and a (now-closed) Sam's Club moved in, along with Great Escape movie theater, several large car lots, several strip malls, several multi-unit housing complexes, a large daycare center, law offices, a car wash — you name it.

Jenny Wilson lives at 39th Street and 49th Avenue, directly behind Lowe's.

"They built all that stuff up, and all the water gets pushed this way," she said. "There are spots down here that never seem to dry out."

Sue Bileddo has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 70 years, and she said the first signs of flooding came after the Walmart development.

"We never had water; never," she said. "It never once came up to the road, and it's on its way up now. We griped about it and griped about it, and my husband went to the meetings when they were talking about building all this stuff. We knew this would happen."

But there was nothing to prevent the city's thirst for new tax revenue, and the developments kept coming.

"We don't regulate the floodplain," said Ward Lenz, regulatory branch chief for the Rock Island District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "We issue permits ... in commercially navigable waterways or wetlands."

In Moline, much of the land between John Deere Expressway and the Rock River is in the floodplain. The presence of so many new commercial properties offers a ready illustration of the ease with which building permits are issued along waterways.

Not just private land

Softball tournaments and leagues have been cancelled at the city-owned Greenvalley Sports Complex in recent years, because floodwaters inundated the fields.

After the record-breaking flood of 2013, Moline had to hire Blaze Restoration to clean up one of the damaged concession buildings at the complex at 60th Street and 50th Avenue.

"Recently, the flooding is affecting us more," said Moline Parks Director Lori Wilson. "It's like: Is this going to be our new normal?"

While major rain, snow and ice events are attributed to climate change and are impacting river levels across the country, the Rock River's set of problems are unique. A lifetime of shoreline erosion and agricultural and commercial runoff have raised portions of the river bottom with silt build-up.

"Urbanization is definitely a factor (in floods)," said Jessica Brooks, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in the Quad-Cities. "High runoff rates affect sedimentation and also displace water."

While faster-moving water can scour the riverbed and clear away sedimentation, the silt has to land somewhere. And many areas of the river that are outside the current have decades of silt buildup, which also displaces water.

Of course, it isn't financially possible to consider a major dredging operation.

"Just to have my little harbor here dredged, so the boats could get to my place, it cost $25,000," Womack said of the work she had done at Len Brown's a few years ago. "It took more than six months to get the permit, and it was just to maintain access in this spot, and it hasn't lasted. It fills in again."

"Catastrophic' impacts

When attorney John Ames moved to North Shore Drive on the Rock River 50-some years ago, a crest of 14.5 feet — 2.5 feet above flood stage — "was considered a really big deal," he said.

Today, 14.5 doesn't make the list of top 10 crests.

"The floods are like a traffic jam," Ames said. "The river can't handle it."

Part of the problem is the loss of hundreds of acres of swampy marshes that recently bordered much of the river in Moline, naturally absorbing a large volume of overflow. The commercial properties that now occupy that land are adding to the runoff into the river, but they also are eating up space that once made room for floodwaters as the river swelled.

"We cannot tolerate crowding the river in any more," Ames said. "Encroachment can be catastrophic."

Another aggravating factor, he said, is the presence of levees and other man-made systems for protecting agricultural and other land.

"The drainage all along the basin has changed, creating much faster runoff," Ames said. "It's levees, but it's also ditches and more roads and rooftops.

"There's nothing you can do to minimize it. It'll always get worse. It won't get better."

And that is what many fear as they see far more frequent flooding that is bringing higher and higher crests.

"Because of the fast runoff, we'll even get some summer floods that used to be rare, because a downpour will be enough to overwhelm the river," Ames said. "It's a tough problem. We should have been building water-retention areas all along.

"At this point, there's nothing we can do to mitigate it."

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