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Messenger: Biden’s infrastructure bill is good news for flood mitigation in Missouri

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Interstate 55 flooding

Photos comparing the December 2015 and May 2017 flooding of Interstate 55 in south St. Louis County. The water in May of 2017 eventually did stop traffic on southbound Interstate 55 but the northbound lanes always remained open in 2017. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Flood mitigation is one of those things like early childhood education: It works — and everybody knows it works — but it takes a long time to see the benefits of spending all of that money up front. That’s why, more often than not, it is something that goes unfunded.

Every year, in whatever location deals with the ever-increasing flooding in the age of climate change, too many politicians make the same mistakes over and over again: rebuilding in the same place as the most recent flood, just bigger and better, pushing the water elsewhere, and hoping that the 100-year event doesn’t return until they are out of office.

That’s not the case with the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill touted by President Joe Biden and supported by most Democrats in Congress, as well as a few Republicans, such as Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. This bill has hundreds of millions of dollars for states and local governments to build “resilience” into their road and bridge projects, using nature’s gifts to help protect from future flooding.

That’s why Barbara Charry is so excited about the potential of the bill to change the landscape of flood mitigation in Missouri and elsewhere. Charry is a conservation biologist with The Nature Conservancy. She’s as excited about the infrastructure bill as concrete and steel workers are.

Why?

“Every dollar spent on pre-disaster mitigation saves us $7 in disaster spending,” Charry says. “It’s really an exciting opportunity to apply nature-based solutions to important projects. Our lands and waters are as much a part of our infrastructure as roads and bridges are. They all work together.”

St. Louisans know that instinctively, if they remember what it was like in 2015 and 2017, when unexpected floods sent water covering, or threatening to cover, three separate interstates in the region. The overflowing Meramec River caused some of the worst damage.

These days, the Meramec floods faster and in more areas than it did 20, 30 or 50 years ago. Some of that is because we haven’t learned the lessons the rivers have tried to teach us for more than a century: The water is going to go somewhere, and if we want to protect our homes, schools and infrastructure from damage, we have to give the rivers room to roam.

That’s why it’s so important that this infrastructure bill has billions of dollars focused on helping communities use nature-based strategies to protect their projects from future flooding, says Forbes Tomkins, of the Pew Charitable Trust’s flood-prepared communities initiative. Tomkins calls the bill a “once-in-a-generation investment” because of its focus on helping reduce future flooding risk.

“Everybody has a seat at the table and a role to play here to ensure that the resources and new programs established by this bill are used in ways that do improve resilience,” Tomkins says.

What might that look like in Missouri?

A good example is the Atchison County levee project in northwest Missouri. There, farmers and landowners, the Army Corps of Engineers, The Nature Conservancy and other various federal and nonprofit groups worked together to create more floodplain by moving the levee away from the Missouri River after the devastating 2019 floods.

That project needed money to buy land to make it work, as well as unique mitigation efforts based on science, that protected farmers as well as helped wildlife. The bipartisan infrastructure bill has billions of dollars in grants for such projects throughout the country, with the incentives tilted to that concept of resilience, creating projects that can handle increased risks of flooding without simply pushing the water elsewhere for others to deal with when it next rises.

Or it might look like the Big River cleanup project, an attempt to restore and stabilize banks along the river south of St. Louis that feeds into the Meramec, while also cleaning up years of lead pollution that ends up back in the river every time it floods. That project is planned but needs the money that is now available through the infrastructure bill.

Or it might mean that many of the rural low-water crossings that regularly become dangerous during floods get rebuilt in a way that allows streams to more naturally flow through them, rather than getting stuck in the too-small culverts so many have now.

Whatever infrastructure projects are on the drawing board in Missouri, they will have access to more funding if they make sure “resilience” is part of the plan. It’s the “new frontier” of infrastructure, Tomkins says, in an era in which the concept of a 100-year flood has lost all meaning.

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