American Rivers
Jun 11 · 7 min read

Climate change will mean more epic floods — but the damage doesn’t have to be this bad.

Flying over Illinois and Missouri in a small plane, I look down on farmland that, by now, should be a carpet of green corn and soybeans. But all I see are brown, empty fields, speckled with standing water and the sun glaring off of silver seas behind broken levees. I am up in the air with Lighthawk to survey the damage — so far — from this record-breaking flood season. In my role as Associate Director of the Upper Mississippi River Basin at American Rivers, I’ve seen plenty of flood damage over the years. My current view from the plane window is devastating.

Where I live in Illinois, roads and bridges are closed because of high water. Flash flooding forced my daycare to close for several days. My yard is a squishy swamp. And so many people have it a lot worse than I do: homes and businesses have been destroyed, and farmers’ livelihoods are at risk because they can’t get their crops in the ground.

The Union Township Levee in Missouri was overtopped May 30, 2019, forcing around 150 people to abandon their homes, farms and businesses.

As I fly over Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, I am horrified by the economic disaster that is slowly unfolding. By now, all of the corn crop should be in the ground, and most of the soybeans. In a good year, the corn would be knee-high right now. But it’s not… it’s not even there. Peoples’ lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Ten states, from North Dakota to Louisiana, are struggling with major flooding right now. The Great Flood of 2019 is shattering records across the region and rivaling the infamous floods of 1993 and 1927. But I doubt mother nature will make us wait a quarter-century for the next Great Flood.

Climate change is only going to make things worse in the coming years. When it comes to protecting communities, the only way forward is a massive paradigm shift in the way we manage our rivers.

Back in 1927, a major flood on the Mississippi River spurred an era of flood control: we built dams, levees and other structures in an attempt to tame the river. This kind of infrastructure is called “gray” infrastructure because it typically involves lots of concrete. But it only made matters worse. Now, in the midst of the latest historic flood, we must use this moment to begin a new chapter of flood protection.

This new era must be about giving the river room, and helping people move out of harm’s way. It must be about working with nature, not against it.

This is climate change

Climate change is bringing more frequent and intense storms and floods, threatening communities living along the Mississippi and other rivers. The three highest-volume rain storms ever recorded in the U.S. have occurred in the last three years, in line with climate scientists’ projections that extreme downpours in the U.S. could increase by 400 percent by the end of this century. One study determined that the magnitude of 100-year flood events in the Mississippi Basin has increased by 20 percent over the past 500 years, with much of that increase being caused by the combination of river engineering and climate change.

Lives and property are at risk, flood damages are straining tax-payer dollars, and clean water and wildlife habitat are suffering. Our changing climate, outdated management approaches and policies, underfunded and under-utilized green infrastructure, and increasing urbanization have created a flood management crisis.

A “circle of absurdity”

This compact track loader is working on building up the levee in Reach 2 of the Sny Island Levee District. Sny Island is another district identified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for having built their levees too high.

This crisis is fueled by a long-standing negative feedback loop. Traditional gray infrastructure, such as dams, levees and concrete flood control channels, creates a false sense of security and incentivizes people to live in harm’s way. When that sense of security is shattered in a disaster, people demand even more gray infrastructure that so often pushes flood problems onto their unsuspecting neighbors. This perpetuates a flood-damage-repair cycle that is ever expanding with massive costs to life, property, taxpayers and the environment.

David Stokes with the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance calls this the “circle of absurdity.” It’s why, despite billions invested in flood control, flood losses continue to rise.

It’s time to break the cycle.

Neighbor versus neighbor

Two levee districts in Missouri. In the foreground, the Fabius Levee District was identified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as one of the levee districts with overbuilt levees. Above them, the Union Township Levee District kept their levees within the authorized dimensions. Not surprisingly, Union Township’s levee failed.

Exacerbating the situation, some levee districts along the Mississippi River are making their levees bigger and taller without the necessary permits. Not only is this illegal, it puts nearby communities at risk of increased flooding. Indeed, in my recent aerial survey of the Mississippi River, I saw the pattern. Most of the levee breaches are adjacent to illegally overbuilt levees. When our flood protection strategy pits neighbor against neighbor, clearly something — other than the levees — is broken.

American Rivers highlighted the threat of illegal levee development when we named the Upper Mississippi River among America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2019.

Eighty miles of levees between Muscatine, Iowa, and Hamburg, Illinois, have been raised without obtaining the required state or federal approvals or complying with state and federal laws designed to protect people and the environment. As a result, these levee raises put people and property at risk and perpetuate a century of habitat degradation on the Upper Mississippi River. Not only are the actions of these levee districts sowing chaos during already chaotic natural disasters, but failure to come into compliance disregards clear requirements to study, identify and start to reverse the ongoing damages to the Upper Mississippi River ecosystem that have been caused by floodplain disconnection.

One floodplain, two worlds. Near Louisiana, MO on the Mississippi River, the world is divided into the haves and have-nots. On one side of the Mississippi River, protected by overbuilt levees and overworked pumps, farmers are sowing their fields like any other year. But just across the river, farmers are paying the price as their neighbors push more and more water onto their flooded fields. What looks like a boat launch is someone’s flooded field in nearby Annada, MO.

The Army Corps, FEMA and the states of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri must take corrective action to stop and resolve these levee violations. Violators also must be held accountable for their illegal activities. It’s critical that state and federal agencies work with all stakeholders to develop effective flood risk management strategies for urban and rural communities that avoid and correct the environmental damage and increased risks created by levees and floodwalls. The decision cannot be made by a single group, especially since the actions of these levee districts are placing people and wildlife at risk.

Give the river room

The Upper Mississippi region needs to move beyond an early 20th century vision of flood control that foolishly relies on bigger and higher levees and floodwalls. We know now that the best way to protect people and property is to give rivers room to safely accommodate floodwaters. We need a flood risk management plan for the Mississippi River that incorporates natural and nature-based solutions to deliver the flood and habitat protection needed for both healthy communities and healthy rivers.

Above Hannibal, MO the Mississippi River is confined on both sides, which creates a dam-like effect, flooding areas upstream.

This becomes even more urgent as the effects of climate change and the danger of increasingly intense storms take hold. Federal and state agencies should advance natural and nature-based solutions, such as wetland and floodplain restoration and levee setbacks, to protect vulnerable communities from flooding and deliver a wide range of benefits, including improved water quality, fish and wildlife habitat and recreation, fishing and hunting opportunities.

We’re witnessing these solutions work in places like California’s Central Valley. The region recently adopted a new flood protection plan that strategically expands floodplains, floodways and flood bypasses to reduce flood risk to people and property, and benefit fish and wildlife habitat. The plan is exemplary because it takes into account the impacts of climate change. It benefits over one million Californians and $70 billion in homes, businesses and infrastructure, and is a model for other watersheds nationwide.

A vision for the future

What do you see when you look at the window of an airplane? Do you see rivers meandering across the landscape, cutting through forests and canyons, winding through towns? From the air, it’s easy to see that rivers and streams are the veins and arteries of our nation. Like the veins and arteries in our own bodies, they give us life.

Here on the Mississippi River, we know what’s at stake with climate change. And we know that healthy rivers are key to our future.

To break the “circle of absurdity”, protect the environment, and strengthen communities along the Mississippi River, we must:

  1. Strictly enforce floodplain development laws and regulations to protect people and the environment.
  2. Consider floodplain development proposals, including levee modifications, through the legally required public process that reviews the impacts to public safety and the environment.
  3. Invest in the completion of a robust watershed study that identifies and frames the issues of flooding, landscape changes, and future climate conditions.
  4. Work together to determine shared flood risk management goals and actions for communities, states and the federal government.

After seeing the tragic damage caused by this season’s flooding, I’m more determined than ever. We must leave our 20th Century “flood control” approaches in the past where they belong. It’s time to give the river room. We must act now to create the positive change our communities, and our children, need for a better future.

Learn more about the work American Rivers.

Photo credits top to bottom:
Top hero: Roy Plasschaert
Union Township: Roy Plasschaert
Compact Track Loader: Crystal Dorothy
Neighbor v. Neighbor: Roy Passchaert
One floodplain two worlds: Crystal Dorothy (both)
Hannibal: Roy Plasschaert
Flag over Clarksville, MO: Crystal Dorothy
Aerial Photography supported by Lighthawk

American Rivers

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