Levee-Only Policy Insufficient
Location: Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Wisconsin
The Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America and a critical source of water for millions of people. The river sustains a $12.6 billion shipping industry, is a key part in a $21.4 billion tourism industry, and 92% of the world’s agricultural exports are produced by it. Over 70 million people live in the Mississippi River Basin, 12 million of whom live in the 125 counties and parishes along the River. Over 18 million people and 50 cities rely on the Mississippi for drinking water.
Massive flooding throughout the Mississippi River Basin has devastated communities, and highlighted the fact that trying to control the river is not the solution.
We have over-engineered our rivers, destroyed wetlands and floodplains, and failed to invest in adequate defenses. Billions have been spent on dams, levees, and other flood control structures, giving people who live in these otherwise dangerous places a false sense of security. While levees and floodwalls will continue to make sense in some heavily populated areas, their overuse actually causes flood levels to rise as the river channel is narrowed and water has nowhere to go but up. Flood damages have continued to steadily increase nationwide, costing taxpayers, families, businesses, and the environment.
Making matters worse, we have completely ignored our natural defenses - a floodplain with trees, natural vegetation, or flood tolerant crops is much more useful in soaking up rainfall and storing floodwaters than row crop agriculture or pavement. We have allowed these important resources, which also filter pollution from our water and provide habitat for wildlife, to be plowed under, walled off, and otherwise destroyed.
The destruction of 35 million acres of wetlands — an area the size of Illinois — in the upper Mississippi River basin alone has increased flood risks to cities and farms downstream. The system of floodways and bypasses ensures flood protection when it is needed most, but we need an integrated approach that looks comprehensively at the whole Mississippi River basin for more areas that can provide storage naturally. A 21st century approach to flood protection depends on investing in our natural defenses and ensuring that levees are a last line of defense.
What Must Be Done
Amid widespread damage, our immediate focus should be on protecting victims and helping communities recover. However, we must also take this opportunity to reassess the way we manage floods to prevent these disasters from happening in the future. It is time for modern solutions that better protect communities, and that means investing in natural defenses like healthy wetlands and floodplains.
The Administration, Congress and federal regulators must prioritize natural flood management approaches to ensure that levees are not the only line of defense. Investing in our natural defenses is an investment in our nation’s communities and will help to lessen catastrophic damages from floods in the future.
The scenes of devastation in Mississippi River communities should be a call to action. Our future safety depends on the choices that we make today. By making the right investments in how we plan our federal water resources projects and how we invest in agricultural conservation programs, we will not only weather future storms and improve public safety, we will ultimately save money and enjoy all of the benefits healthy rivers provide.