A 21st Century Flood Management Strategy for the Southeast

Statement by Shana Udvardy, American Rivers

May 11th, 2010

Shana Udvardy, 202-243-7056
Amy Kober, 206-898-3864

(Washington, DC) –  American Rivers voiced support today for efforts to help communities across Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi recover from recent floods and released a four point plan to prevent dangerous and damaging floods in the future.

In Tennessee, after heavy rains dumped over 13 inches on May 1 and 2, Cumberland and Tennessee River tributary levels exceeded previous large floods of 1975 and 1927.  Making matters worse, on May 2 the Long Hollow Pike Dam in Gallatin, TN reportedly breached. Also on May 2, the Army Corps of Engineers, concerned for the stability of Old Hickory Dam, released 5.4 billion gallons of water through the dam. Downstream communities, including Nashville, were not notified of the sudden release of water. On May 5 a levee in Dyersburg, TN overtopped.  

“The loss of lives is a catastrophe. Our hearts go out to the people who lost loved ones and whose property was damaged,” said Shana Udvardy, director of flood management policy for American Rivers.

“While we need to focus on public safety and recovery now, we must also take this opportunity to reassess our flood management strategies to prevent this kind of disaster from happening in the future,” she said.

American Rivers highlighted four priorities that are an essential part of a 21st century flood management plan:

1) Remove or repair unsafe dams
As in all parts of the United States, there are many unsafe or obsolete dams throughout the Southeast.  These dams can make flooding worse by increasing flood heights upstream or, in the worst case scenario, when the dam fails. American Rivers is a leader in removing outdated dams; we assist communities across the country in eliminating public safety hazards, saving money and restoring rivers through dam removal.

American Rivers recently released a DVD about how communities are improving public safety and reducing flood damage by removing outdated dams. Watch the video at http://www.americanrivers.org/our-work/restoring-rivers/dams/restoring-americas-rivers-dvd.html

2) Restore and protect floodplains
Protecting and restoring natural floodplains gives rivers room to spread out, which reduces flood levels. In some areas, levees can be set back farther from the river, or removed altogether if appropriate flood management steps are implemented. Allowing rivers to overflow onto natural floodplains upstream of populated areas can also help alleviate pressure on levees guarding cities. Wherever possible, homes and businesses in the floodplain should be moved out of harm’s way. High risk facilities like hospitals, schools and elder housing should never be developed in floodplains. Structures that are damaged by floods each year must be a priority for removal or relocation. 

3) Protect wetlands
Wetlands are nature’s sponges, absorbing floodwaters and releasing them slowly over time. A single wetland acre, saturated to a depth of one foot, retains 330,000 gallons of water — enough to flood thirteen average-sized homes thigh deep. Even having four to five percent wetland coverage in a watershed can reduce peak floods by 50 percent. Wetlands that are drained, filled, or isolated behind levees provide little or no flood protection for the surrounding community.

4) Reform flood insurance
Congress originally intended the National Flood Insurance Program to reduce the nation’s vulnerability to flood damage. Instead, the program has run up a near $20 billion debt to the Federal Treasury and has encouraged destruction of floodplains and wildlife habitat, with taxpayer subsidies. Congress must use the upcoming NFIP reauthorization to reform the program in order to ensure fiscal solvency, public safety, and river health.

Throughout much of American history, rivers have been treated as problems that must be “solved” through large scale and expensive engineering projects. As a result, rivers have been clogged with dams, straightened and channelized, cut off from their floodplains and even buried underground.  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.  Despite spending more than $25 billion on federal levees and dams, our nation’s flood losses continue to rise.

“American Rivers is committed to helping these states bring flood management into the 21st century,” said Udvardy. “Levees and other structural solutions will continue to be part of the flood management strategy in some communities that must protect existing development within floodplains, but the real answer to long-term safety and well-being lies in working with nature, not against it.”


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About American Rivers

About American Rivers

American Rivers protects wild rivers, restores damaged rivers, and conserves clean water for people and nature. Since 1973, American Rivers has protected and restored more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects, and the annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® campaign. Headquartered in Washington, DC, American Rivers has offices across the country and more than 200,000 members, supporters, and volunteers.

Rivers connect us to each other, nature, and future generations. Find your connections at AmericanRivers.org, Facebook.com/AmericanRivers, and Twitter.com/AmericanRivers.