Mississippi floods: the Year of the River

Several months ago, American Rivers dubbed 2011 The Year of the River because of the exciting and unprecedented dam removal projects coming up. The river restoration on Washington’s Elwha and White Salmon are ones for the history books.

But now we have another history-making event in the works: record flooding of the Mississippi River.

We watch with fear, awe, and sorrow as the river destroys property and creates painful upheaval for people’s lives and businesses. The economic toll of the floods will be staggering.

This is turning out to be quite a year for rivers, and apparently we still have a lot to learn when it comes to living with them.

I hope that all of the events this year – from the dam removals to the flood – will spur more conversation about river restoration. A healthy, free-flowing river brings all kinds of benefits to communities, from clean drinking water to natural flood protection to recreation and wildlife habitat.

We have so over-engineered and manipulated and changed our rivers that it can be easy to forget what a healthy river and floodplain actually looks like.

A healthy river isn’t a straight canal or a single channel – it is an interconnected mosaic of side channels and wetlands and forests. A healthy river is dynamic –it is formed by flooding, moving, and meandering. It is meant to function this way. When we try to hem rivers in with levees or control them with dams or pave their floodplains with concrete, there are consequences – for public safety, for the economy, for the environment.

I recently saw a statistic from American Rivers science advisor and National Geographic Fellow Sandra Postel – we have lost 35 million acres of wetlands in the upper Mississippi basin. That’s an area the size of Illinois. Think of all the floodwaters those wetlands could have held.

Restoring healthy rivers – whether that means removing an outdated dam or setting back a levee to give a river more room to move — is not just for “birds and bunnies” as a colleague put it recently. It’s about protecting communities with natural defenses and leaving a better, safer future for the next generation.

In this Year of the River, that’s the message we hope to send.

Here is some of the recent media coverage on the floods, highlighting our perspective: