Upper Mississippi River states lose millions in federal funding for flood risk reduction planning

February 22, 2021

Contacts:

Olivia Dorothy, American Rivers, 217-390-3658
Ryan Grosso, Prairie Rivers Network, 217-344-2371 (ext. 203)
Jill Crafton, Izaak Walton League, 952-944-5583
Christine Favilla, Sierra Club, 618-401-7870
Kelly McGinnis, Mississippi River Network, 708-305-3524

Environmental and conservation groups are dismayed by the governors of the Upper Mississippi River states for failing to secure millions in federal dollars to address climate change fueled flood issues along the Upper Mississippi River.

The Upper Mississippi River was listed as America’s #1 Most Endangered River in 2020 due to poor watershed planning in the face of climate change. The river is critical to the nation’s economy and is a globally significant ecosystem. However, climate change is driving more intense rain storms, leading to more frequent and prolonged flooding in the Upper Midwest. This new reality puts people, habitat, and infrastructure at risk—and communities along the Upper Mississippi are dangerously unprepared. These risks are greatly exacerbated by two centuries of shortsighted floodplain—and watershed—development decisions that are cutting the river off from hundreds of thousands of acres of its floodplain, dangerously constricting the Upper Mississippi River, and degrading vital fish and wildlife habitat.

The 2020 Most Endangered River© designation came on the heels of the 2019 Flood, one of the worst floods in history. Not only was the water high, but the Upper Mississippi River was at flood stage for over 100 days. Few of our flood management systems, and indeed none of our flood control methods like levees and floodwalls, are designed to withstand these new climate-change fueled, long-duration flood events. It is critical, and indeed, long over-due, that we start planning for the future, in a coordinated way, along the Upper Mississippi River.

And Congress responded. The coronavirus relief package that was signed into law in December 2020 included a provision to incentivize the states to develop a Watershed Study and Integrated Water Management Plan for the Upper Mississippi River to respond to climate change and guide community and state decision-making.

Representatives of the Upper Mississippi River Basin governors, which include Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, have been working with the US Army Corps of Engineers over the past year to pull together a proposal that could bring millions to the basin for flood risk management planning. But talks disintegrated when the basin governors insisted the study focus on maintaining the 9-foot navigation channel and be limited to activities in the Mississippi River floodplain.

“This attempt by the five Upper Mississippi River governors to divert federal funding, for what is essentially a massive public safety and green infrastructure planning effort, to support the river navigation industry, defies all logic,” said Olivia Dorothy, Upper Mississippi Basin Director for American Rivers. “The Upper Mississippi governors are leaving millions on the table and putting people’s lives at risk.”

Thanks to Congress’ efforts to pass the new authority, federal funding could have been available as early as this year. But since the Upper Mississippi River governors tried to push forward a planning effort that is not in line with the study authority, the federal funding was not approved.

“Every drop of water that falls in the basin is on a rocket ship to the Gulf of Mexico,” said Jill Crafton of the Izaak Walton League. “And with that water is pollution and soil. We need to be working with farmers to slow water down through soil health measures across the landscape, and a Watershed Plan would help us get that done.”

“We need a Watershed Study that works across the federal and state agencies to guide policies and actions in a coordinated way,” said Christine Favilla, Three Rivers Project Coordinator of the Sierra Club. “Where we are now, every time it floods, it’s a war between neighbors, communities and states. Instead of trenches and bombs, we are using levees and floodwalls to hurl the Mighty Mississippi River at each other – a river whose discharge can exceed one-million cubic feet per second during large flood events.”

“A Watershed Study and subsequent Integrated Watershed Plan would help us end these flood fights and advance green infrastructure solutions that will restore and protect habitat,” said Ryan Grosso of Prairie Rivers Network. “These solutions would help us manage water and land development in ways that work with nature, promote healthy natural ecosystems, and ultimately protect communities on the frontline.”

“State representatives are meeting with the Corps of Engineers tomorrow. We sincerely hope the governors of Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin realize that it is the best interest of their states to put forward a request that is in line with the Watershed Study authority,” said Dorothy. “As someone who lives on the banks of the Mississippi River, we need the states to start working together to plan and develop in the Upper Mississippi River Watershed to protect people and the Mississippi River ecosystem.”

“The failure of the Upper Mississippi River governors to bring these federal dollars to help people deal with the impacts of climate change is worrisome,” said Kelly McGinnis, Executive Director of the Mississippi River Network. “Our network, of over 50 environmental organizations, is exploring options to serve as the non-federal sponsor for the much-needed Watershed Study and Integrated Water Management Plan.”

As a “new start,” the Upper Mississippi River Watershed Study could have brought as much as $200,000 in federal funding to the basin this year. The Corps estimates the Watershed Study for the Upper Mississippi River Basin would cost approximately $3 million and take 3 years.

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For Reference:

  1. Planning assistance request letter of intent to sponsor from the basin governors.
  2. Keys to the River Report Draft outlining the Governors’ Watershed Study Proposal.
  3. Full comments from environmental organizations on the Keys to the River Report.
  4. American Rivers 2020 Most Endangered Rivers © Report on Upper Mississippi River.

Watershed Studies are authorized under Section 729 of WRDA 1986, as amended, and other specifically authorized watershed planning authorities, which allow the Corps to work with non-federal partners to evaluate water resources and develop comprehensive watershed plans with an Integrated Water Resource Management focus.  The purpose of a watershed study is to collaboratively work with partners, beyond the Corps traditional mission areas, to identify a broad range of solutions for multiple stakeholders. A key difference between watershed planning study and other Corps specifically authorized studies is that a watershed study does not specifically evaluate the feasibility of a federally-funded Corps action.  Rather, the Corps, along with their non-federal partners, can evaluate a series of strategies, alternatives, and actions across a broad range of stakeholders’ authorities.  Although a watershed study does not conduct a feasibility study for a new Corps project, the watershed study can be used to identify and justify the need for potential future studies and projects that the Corps may wish to pursue under separate authorities. 

The primary documents describing the Corps’ watershed planning approach are CECW-P Planning Bulletin No. PB2016-03 and CECW-P Engineering Circular No. EC 1105-2-411. Corps studies follow the Corps six step planning process.  The steps include: 1) Identify problems and opportunities, 2) Inventory existing resources and forecast future conditions, 3) Identify management measures and screen them for effectiveness, 4) Formulate an initial array of strategies for addressing problems and needs. 5)  Refine the initial array of strategies and evaluate a focused array of strategies, and 6) Compare strategies and make a selection. For a watershed study, these steps can be simplified into three primary milestones: (a) creating a collaborative and shared vision for the watershed, (b) conducting a holistic watershed assessment to identify specific strategies to be analyzed, and (c) developing a watershed strategy.  The Shared Vision milestone is a critical first step because it will define the overall vision for the stakeholder group, presents the study scope/framework, and identifies how the framework and associated activities support the collaborative watershed vision. In order for these steps to be successfully executed the team must continually work to ensure the study area/watershed is clearly defined, the watershed is treated as a system, existing resources are being properly leveraged, and public involvement and collaboration is continuous throughout the project.