We’ve all been watching the dramatic footage of flooding in the Midwest, destroying homes, fields of crops, infrastructure and even air force stations. The scale of the damage is daunting and it can be hard to wrap our heads around the scope of change that is needed in order to avoid such catastrophic damage in the future. In the coming weeks and months, the communities and landowners across the Midwest will want to act as quickly as possible to get back on their feet. A key step will be deciding whether to rebuild back the way things were, or to choose new options that could make us more prepared for the next flood.
There’s a famous quote by Gilbert White, the founder of the floodplain management movement: “Floods are an act of God; flood damages result from the acts of man.” The rain will always fall, but the decisions we make about how we manage our rivers and use our floodplains determines how extensive the damages are during a flood.
The rivers across the Midwest, and much of the country have been dramatically altered from their natural states over the last century. Before Europeans settled in the Midwest, big rivers like the Missouri and Mississippi would spread their flood waters out across wide floodplains, slowing the flows, and rejuvenating robust floodplain habitats. As farmers sought to make their land tillable, they straightened streams and created extensive levee systems to keep flood water off their land and in the streams. About a century ago, the Army Corps became the official flood control agency of the United States building monster levee systems along our big rivers. At last count, they oversee almost 30,000 miles of levees across the United States.
As shown in this excellent piece by Propublica, relying on levees can have unfortunate consequences. Levees create the illusion of safety, and the “protected” floodplain can be attractive places for people to build communities and businesses. But trapping flood waters in a narrow channel forces water to move downstream more quickly, which puts stress on levees. When floodwaters overtop or breach a levee, the results can be catastrophic to the communities and fields behind it. To make matters worse, when levees fail, it tends to happen at the same spots meaning we see a damage and repair cycle play out flood after flood.
In many areas across the country where a historic reliance on levees has led to increased flood risk, communities and landowners are choosing to reduce the risk of future levee failures by creating more room for flood waters to spread out across the floodplain. These natural flood management approaches to alter levee systems and make room for rivers to flood can come in many forms.
- After the 2011 Missouri River floods, a flooded landowner was tired of having his levee fail during floods, and asked the Army Corps to do a levee setback rather than rebuild it back along the river.
- In 2010, the Army Corps worked with Iowa Department of Natural Resources to acquire the 300 acres of floodplain land and transfer it to the Green Island Wildlife Management after a repetitively damaged levee breached on the Maquoketa River in Iowa.
- In Yakima County, Washington, after repetitive damage to their levee system, the flood control district is proactively reconnecting the Yakima River to the floodplain to reduce future flood damage.
Each of these projects reconnected the river with the floodplain and reduced flood risk. But they had another thing in common — they were implemented after levees were damaged by a flood. Unfortunately, examples like these are few and far between. After a flood, there’s pressure to rebuild levees as fast as possible, to be ready before the next flood hits. Unless an alternate solution has been identified and planned ahead of time, there may not be time to plan a levee setback or get landowners on board with an acquisition or new idea.
After the 2011 Missouri River flood, the Omaha district of the Army Corps explored levee setbacks, and potential to implement projects after a flood. River managers across the Midwest should build upon their past success and planning to implement projects that give the river additional room to flood whenever they are repairing damaged levees. We need to work as quickly as possible with landowners and other stakeholders to identify opportunities to create more room for rivers to flood within the existing flood control system.