Room for Rivers: Community Snapshots of Natural Defenses in Action

America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2011

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As floods spread south along the Mississippi River, one thing is clear that although we can’t do away with gray infrastructure all together, we can and must look at the landscape for a new paradigm for how nature can store flood waters often better and cheaper.  

Activating the Corps floodways (Birds Point Levee last week and potentially the Morganza and Bonne Carré this week) are examples of the how floodplains can provide flood storage when rivers are allowed to spread out.  In a changing climate, more frequent and intense floods will become more common as compared to past events.  Our ability to be resilient in the face of climate change will depend in large part upon choices that we have made in the past and are making now. 

The good news is that we have many communities across the nation that are pointing to a new direction – here are three snapshots of communities putting natural defenses – our rivers, wetland, floodplains, upland and coastal areas – to action:

Nashville Naturally,Nashville, TN [pdf]:– Increasing flood storage along the Cumberland River.

After a devastating “500-year” flood last year, Nashville hopes their city will become the greenest in the Southeast. Nashville’s plan will expand the current greenway with large-scale preserves along the Cumberland River and will provide increased water storage and protection from floods not to mention the benefits of open space and habitat for wildlife.  Nashville Naturally includes goals to increase the metro park system by 30%, protect more than 10,000 acres of floodplain and other sensitive natural areas including sustainable agricultural uses, establish large-scale preserves in every bend of the Cumberland River, add 25 miles of new greenways, double the downtown tree canopy, and transition 20% of pavement in the downtown area to pervious surfaces or natural plantings.

Pierce County, WA – Setting levees back to allow more room for rivers.

Approximately 90 miles of levees were built along the Puyallup River since the 1900s primarily to protect agriculture.  As time passed the protection from the levees incentivized development while repair and maintenance lapsed.  After the 1996 flood, Pierce County started a plan to reduce the risk of future flood damages and to reconnect the Puyallup River with its natural floodplain through a system of levee setbacks and bank protection measures.  Pierce County’s proactive flood protection efforts helped protect the City of Orting during the

Charlotte – Mecklenburg County, NC – Working with nature to reduce flood risk.

After three major floods in less than 10 years and projections of high population growth, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County invested $3 million in remapping the major watersheds, implemented permanent protection of over 3,000 acres of floodplain habitat for open greenspace, and used local stormwater and federal agency funds to buy and move 225 high-risk structures out of harm’s way.  These efforts helped to safeguard more than 100 homes from Tropical Storm Fay in 2008.

As wonderful as each of these examples are, we need them to eventually become the norm rather than the exception.  What would it look like if communities across the nation invested in their natural defenses?