Over the past two years, we’ve been reminded just how much St. Louis depends on and is affected by rivers. We had record-breaking floods on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in 2011, followed by a devastating drought in 2012, both of which had major impacts on our economy. And now, there’s been flooding again in St. Louis, which is exacerbated by historic flooding on the nearby Illinois River.
As occurred during the floods of 2011, our instinct tells us to defy the flood, and then get back to normal as quickly as possible. Local, state and federal policies support this approach, and agencies follow up with billions of dollars subsidized by taxpayers. On the surface, this seems to make common sense, but this approach can lock us into a cycle of trying to control or fix things that, realistically, we can never truly fix or control.
So what is the uncommon sense of flood management?
Thirteen years ago, The Nature Conservancy acquired a 7,000-acre farm along the Illinois River, known as Emiquon, and converted the corn fields back to wetlands. The levee already in existence at Emiquon remains in place and is necessary to abate frequent fluctuations in river levels caused by modified drainage for agriculture and urban development. But the site can now also absorb floodwaters during catastrophic events to alleviate pressure on the levees protecting nearby communities. For the first time since 1943, the levee was allowed to overtop on April 24, helping reduce flood risk at downstream communities.
Here’s the uncommon sense behind our approach:
1. Record-breaking floods are increasing. So-called “hundred-year floods” occur far more frequently than their name suggests, and scientists predict floods will become even more frequent in coming decades. Floods are among the most expensive natural disasters, resulting in billions of dollars of damages in the U.S. every year.
2. It’s time for a different approach. We need a coordinated and systemwide approach that reduces losses while improving the health of great rivers. We must be proactive. There is a payoff: A study by the National Institute of Building Sciences estimated that for every $1 we spend on hazard mitigation efforts, we can save $4 in future damages.
3. Work with nature, not against it. We need dams and levees, but nature is an essential part of the solution, too. On the lower Mississippi, the Army Corps of Engineers has opened floodplains and floodways to create room for the river during catastrophic events — an approach that avoided devastating losses in 2011.
4. Demonstrate potential solutions. Every flood is different, but, in general, by allowing floodwaters to spread out onto this vast area, Emiquon helps lower flood levels in nearby communities, including Peoria some 40 miles upstream. Additional floodplain areas along the Illinois and other rivers are still needed. Farsighted public policies would provide fair economic incentives to those farmers and landowners who want to be part of the solution, saving taxpayers money.
The Nature Conservancy’s hope at Emiquon is to demonstrate the importance of functional floodplains and encourage more projects of this type. Let’s learn some lessons from 2011 and 2013 and make such uncommon sense more common.
Todd Sampsell is The Nature Conservancy’s state director in Missouri. He lives in the St. Louis area and has worked on river and watershed conservation issues for over 15 years in Pennsylvania and Missouri. Michael Reuter is The Nature Conservancy’s director of freshwater in North America. He lives in Peoria, Ill., and has worked on the Illinois River for over 20 years.