Rivers Aren’t a Problem to be Solved

[Part 2 of a series on the floods in the Midwest – read part 1 here]

Throughout much of American history, rivers have been treated as problems that must be “solved” through large scale and expensive engineering projects.

The result? Rivers have been clogged with dams, straightened, channelized, and cut off from their floodplains by levees, and even buried underground by agricultural drainage “tiles”.

But these approaches have often exacerbated the very problems they were meant to solve, and have saddled communities with long-term costs they cannot afford.

While building and maintaining flood control infrastructure makes sense for some heavily-populated areas, these individual decisions often have immense negative consequences for decades to come.

Building and strengthening bank armor, levees, and floodwalls creates a levee “arms race.” When one community builds a larger, stronger flood defense, it sends more water (at higher elevations and with more erosive energy) downstream to another community on the river, which then has to respond by building their flood defense larger and stronger. And, this new “economic development” in flood risk areas will come at tremendous costs to the local tax base.

There are few, if any, economic incentives for communities to site new development out of harm’s way.

Instead, when floods strike or a levee fails or overtops, communities can externalize costs to federal taxpayers through federal disaster assistance. We have a moral imperative to think differently about how we respond to flood challenges in a changing climate. By providing incentives to protect our natural defenses (our rivers, wetlands, floodplains, forests and upland and coastal areas), restore our natural areas and replicate green infrastructure approaches nationwide we can reduce flood risk and increase resiliency of both our human and natural communities.

Until we better manage our rivers and improve our flood protection strategies, we will be confronted with crisis after crisis. That is where we find ourselves now, with the Army Corps needing to blow up a levee to save Cairo, Illinois, by sending floodwaters onto Missouri farmland. The fact is, to better safeguard communities and homes, we do need to remove or set back some levees and give rivers more room to spread out and slow down. And by moving or tearing down some agricultural levees, we will have more money and resources to invest in those levees that are most critical for protecting people and homes.

But these decisions should be made as part of a thoughtful, intentional plan for a river and all of its communities – not piecemeal, in crisis, as floodwaters are rising.