Floods on the Upper Mississippi in 2019

Minutes before the levee broke in Davenport, I was skipping through floodwaters that were backing up via one of the cities many storm sewers. Looking out beyond the temporary levee, I was thinking, “man, this looks bad.” As I drove away, up the hill and away from River Drive, it broke.

Flooding in Davenport, Iowa | Photo by Emilene Leone

When the levee broke in Davenport, there was little warning. People were trapped in their homes and businesses and cars were left stranded in the road.

Thankfully, no one was killed or injured. But that might not be the case when the next levee breaks. Which is why I’m always slightly distracted these days, ears perked, straining to hear the air horns should another levee break.

Traveling around the Quad Cities is an exercise in patience. Multiple bridge approaches are flooded and train traffic that has been re-routed because of the flood blocks other major thoroughfares at a near steady pace. Even the Centennial Bridge, built to withstand a 100-year flood event, is buttressed by HESCO barriers and pumps as Davenport strains to keep it open.

Flooding in Davenport, Iowa | Photo by Emilene Leone
Flooding in Davenport, Iowa | Photo by Emilene Leone

The 100-year flood event is the critical marker for infrastructure and the Centennial Bridge in Davenport was built to span such an event. To see its approach flooded out is to witness something greater — a flood more severe than the almighty 100-year event.

Sadly, we aren’t the only ones with bridge problems. This past weekend the Champ Clark Bridge in Louisiana, MO was closed due to flooding. Located at Louisiana, MO, it is the only bridge that crosses the Mississippi for over one hundred miles and is a major transportation route connecting I-70 to I-72. Unfortunately the Champ Clark Bridge was not built to these “new” 100-year flood frequency standards and was totally swamped with the rising river.

During the Great Flood of 1993, bridge closures were cited as a major economic burden to the region, causing countless delays for people and goods, driving up prices, and closing local business. Experiencing these bridge and road closures begs two questions in my mind – Is the 100-year event still relevant? And, how can we bring our infrastructure up to date to deal with climate change?

Every year, someone on the Upper Mississippi River experiences a statically unlikely 100-year flood event and St. Louis seems to have at least a few 100-year events annually. Is the science and math behind the predictions of these events wrong, or simply out of sync with the current climate conditions? Or is something else going on? Likely all three.

With climate change, the Midwest is experiencing more frequent severe precipitation events, which means more snow in the winter and rain in the spring, which is a deadly recipe for Mississippi River flooding. Unfortunately, the flood frequency statistics are based on past rainfall data, which may no longer be relevant in our new and quickly changing climate. Additionally, the Mississippi basin is over engineered as communities pursue higher levees and more water moves off the landscape faster via an elaborate network of drain tile and channelized streams.

Flooding in Davenport, Iowa | Photo by Olivia Dorothy
Flooding in Davenport, Iowa | Photo by Olivia Dorothy

This is why the Upper Mississippi River between Muscatine, IA and Hamburg, IL was listed among America’s Most Endangered Rivers. Along this 200- mile stretch of the Mississippi, several levee districts have over-built their levees and models show that their actions may be causing some parts of the Upper Mississippi to see almost 2 more feet of water.

So how can we plan better and improve our infrastructure to limit the transportation and associated economic disruptions? To start, we need to update the so-called “100-year” and “500-year” event profiles and flood maps with data based on more recent and projected precipitation trends. Bridge approaches need to be well outside of the updated 100-year events and other critical infrastructure needs to be moved out of the floodplain.

By moving such critical infrastructure out of the floodplain, it will allow the flood waters to slow down over the land, protecting vulnerable people and property.

We also need to get a handle on flood fighting. Today’s standard flood fight is every man for himself. But sandbagging creates another layer of unpredictability in an already chaotic natural disaster and levees are compromised by pushing sand up to the top from the base of the levee, making them taller, but weaker.

Instead of the current flood control approach to river management, state and federal agencies need to lead our region to a more reliable flood risk management strategy that uses more modern, nature-based flood risk management approaches, such as floodplain reconnection and restoration. Such a plan would assure residents that the flood water will go “here” and not “there,” because giving the river room to flood is the best way to protect people and property.

Will you join us in calling on state and federal agencies to enforce floodplain development laws and bring violators into compliance?

6 responses to “Floods on the Upper Mississippi in 2019

  1. 1. The number given in the terms “100-year flood” etc. is called a “return period.” This is just the long-term average interval between floods. It doesn’t mean that once such a flood has happened, it won’t happen again for another ### years. I learned this in college, not from mass media. Labeling them “so-called” reveals an ignorance of the science involved.
    2. I agree that bridges need to be anchored well away from the floodplain. I remember riding the train from Chicago to Florida decades ago while a child. Crossing the region by the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers was mostly on a very long causeway, with not much bridge length, partly of course because trains require low grades. Engineers know how to build long causeways above wetlands.
    3. Man-made levees and putting buildings on floodplains have always been a bad idea, born from a belief that people can and should dominate nature. Instead, we should get rid of the man-made levees and let floods tell us where to remove structures not directly related to use of the water (e.g. docks) – and to downzone these flooded areas as nature preserves, off-limits to rebuilding.
    4. Sandbags which have been soaked by floodwaters become hazardous waste because of the man-made contamination in the floodwater – and can’t be emptied on, say, your beach to put more sand down. Contamination of floodwaters is another reason to downzone the floodplains and get the non-needed structures out. Most businesses and homes contain many substances and fluids which were not intended to be emptied into rivers. When they get into floodwater by accident, they become hazardous waste and contaminants. Floodwater polluted by these substances is also not safe for the soil. River floodwater is good for the soil – but not if it’s contaminated by man-made substances.

  2. SAVE THE DELAWARE RIVER CONTINUES IN THE ESTUARY FROM TRENTON TO THE OCEAN

    We have successfully gotten Wild and Scenic and Special Protection Waters (anti degradation water policy) from Hancock to Trenton. We worked for 16 years to get Tidewaters National Recreation Area recognition from Trenton to Wilmington – the urban section of the tidewaters and birth place of America. The National Park Service – Department of the American Interior – concluded that the birthplace of America had no cultural, historical, recreational, economic or environmental value to the people of the United States of America and our request for “Outstandingly Remarkable American Resource” was denied. This request, which we need to get SPW – anti degradation water policy to stop the increasing pollution was denied.

    It doesn’t get any worse than this in America. Pollution destroying recreation – money over public health and safety. It is time for legal action to claim our constitutional and civic rights to stop the increasing pollution of the Delaware Estuary.

    Looking at the urban pollution running down from Trenton to the ocean we see farms and tourism on both sides of the river – both extreme to the limit to pollution and easily destroyed by pollution and poison in the water.

    A few years ago hospital waste was dumped into the river and blood bags and syringes etc. showed up on the beaches of Cape May, Wildwood, Ocean City and Delaware State beaches and beyond. The result was closed motels being sold as condos and restaurants and businesses being closed down from tourists avoiding the pollution. Today fish are dying, fishing boats are going out of business. Tourists stopped coming to the beaches due to pollution reports. Horseshoe Crabs, Red Knots birds and other creatures are dying and leaving. This is no “combined use” of the water as described by the politicians – this is MURDER! This is DESTRUCTION of our major INDUSTRY and INCOME providing JOBS and FUNDING in the estuary and especially on the ocean end of the estuary! It is also poisoning the public food being produced on our farms.

    Our constitutional rights to clean air water and earth, our economic rights to be protected, Our civil rights, our individual rights, our community rights, our environmental rights, our leadership rights (by the people and for the people), our health, our lives and values in general are all being illegally violated by the United States government allowance of money being more important than the people. The government actually perverting the scientific information being presented by their own agencies for this purpose. Our rights used to be taught in public schools and now they have been removed from the curriculums. Kids grow up thinking that our REPRESENTATIVES in congress, senate, president etc. are “LEADERS”. They are not. We the people are the leaders. It is time for the people to get back in partnership and stop this murder or tomorrow’s children will suffer.

    I am in Cape May. The fish are dying. Fishing businesses are dying. Birds, turtles, horseshoes, red knots – you know what I mean. Our beaches are polluted. Our tourist industry is suffering. Congress calls the pollution from Camden, Trenton, Philadelphia. Marcus Hook, Wilmington “cooperative use:” for their economy killing our economy. What am I missing here? our riparian and constitutional rights for clean water are being ignored. I think an ACLU type lawsuit is necessary now to defend these rights.

    Richard Hunt McNutt, President: Tidewaters Gateway Partnership Inc

  3. Maybe it would be well to remember that wise people in the past got out of the way of raging, flooding rivers…and didnt try to control them, because that is, in the long run, never gonna work. Look at the problems where the huge rivers of the west have been dammed…not so good now!
    It is time for us to look at the Natural world with lots more respect and realize the wisdom of it and not try to harness it. Because that is what brought this climate crisis about…ignoring the rhythm of Nature.
    This is not a solution…just a thought about..” what are we really trying to do here?”

  4. Most of us in the upper Midwest have ancestors that came here to own farmland. Wetlands and streams were seen as an enemy to farming and drainage and channelization began at a furious pace that has only increased with the mechanization of modern agriculture. With the majority of our wetland, prairie, and forested areas gone, our watersheds have become our deformed and treacherous heritage. Water retention on the landscape is a song we have heard and loved, but totally failed to adopt and implement. Agribusiness and the producers are bastions of ultra-conservative politics that want deregulation and no local,state or federal agency able to require the conservation practices so critically needed. It is time for the rest of us to put any fond memories of our agrarian past aside and get this restoration mission accomplished.

  5. Floods are disastrous to human life and wildlife, to the functioning of businesses, transportation and the infrastructure of towns, cities, people’s homes and the actual land.
    Protecting rivers and their surrounds is of utmost importance! Updated planning is needed!

  6. Please listen to the experts and put together a proactive rather then reactive approach to control river flooding.

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