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Tony’s Take

Messenger: From Atchison County to Maryland Heights, to ease flooding, give rivers room to roam

From the Tony Messenger's columns on levees and flood control along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers series
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Missouri Highway 141 closed

Workers with the city of Maryland Heights and the Levee District build berms out of gravel on Wednesday, June 19, 2019 to hold back flood waters alongside Missouri Highway 141. The highway is closed on both sides from Creve Coeur Airport Road to Creve Coeur Mill Road due to flooding from Creve Coeur Lake. Photo by Colter Peterson,

Before the Maryland Heights TIF Commission decides Friday whether to spend $151 million in tax incentives on flood plain development, David Stokes hopes the commissioners look to the northwest corner of the state.

There, tiny Atchison County spent much of 2019 underwater. Most of the farms in that county, which borders the Missouri River, are still unusable as a result of massive flooding. One of the farmers in that area, Richard Oswald, told me in March that the flooding last year was the worst he had seen.

As a result, a state panel studying flooding in Missouri has made a remarkable suggestion:

It’s time to move some levees back in Atchison County, away from the river, to give it room to roam. In the long run, that will protect farmers more than building bigger levees closer to the river.

“State and federal agencies should support levee district projects aimed at reducing the impact of pinch points and improving conveyance,” says the preliminary report of Gov. Mike Parson’s Flood Recovery Advisory Working Group, released on Tuesday. “In the short term, state and federal agencies should provide any available support to the Atchison County Levee District 1’s efforts to set back levees with the participation of willing landowners.”

The suggestion isn’t remarkable because of its substance; river experts, particularly scientists and environmentalists, have long proposed moving levees back and giving the river more room to roam and connect with the flood plain, going all the way back to the 1944 Pick-Sloan Plan that created the series of dams along the upper Missouri River, says Stokes. He’s the executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for healthy river policies, including an avoidance of development in the flood plain.

It’s remarkable because of who sits on Parson’s working group. It’s a panel that consists of mostly industry and agriculture interests. Even the organizations that sound like they are there to protect the Missouri River, such as the “Coalition to Protect the Missouri River,” are actually industry front groups, Stokes notes. He testified to the group last year about the dangers of flood plain development, including the proposed Maryland Heights development, where city leaders have long been chasing retail nirvana similar to the big-box heaven in the Chesterfield Valley.

While much of the working group’s preliminary report hints at the same old failed flood policies — invest in new levees and spend millions of dollars on trying to control the river rather than respecting it — at least when it comes to the area most devastated by the 2019 flood, the message about giving the river room to roam seems to be settling in.

“It would be wonderful to see that done in Atchison County,” Stokes says of moving the levees back and allowing more flood plain to be reclaimed, “both for the local farmers but also as a model going forward for the region.”

As they have tried to do for more than a decade, developers in Maryland Heights want the City Council there to do the exact opposite. They want to use tax dollars to fortify the Howard Bend Levee and build a series of pumps and new levees to move the water that regularly inundates the farmland and highways there somewhere else (they don’t care where) so they can build massive retail developments.

“It’s crazy,” says Stokes.

As far back as 2008, that’s what people who live in Maryland Heights, particularly those who enjoy the serenity of the county’s largest park — Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park — have told a succession of city officials who have chased the magical retail dollar at the expense of smart flood plain policy.

“With the flood protection and the traffic infrastructure, this has become an ideal location,” said the city’s development director when a similar large-scale development was proposed, according to an August 2008 story in the Post-Dispatch.

That plan failed. And numerous flood events since then have proven the false promise of raising the Howard Bend Levee to a so-called 500-year level, which, in the era of climate change and constant urban development of flood plain areas, has become meaningless.

The former Post-Dispatch reporter who wrote that story was Paul Hampel, who now works for the county and is one of St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s six appointees to the TIF commission. Those appointees could protect the flood plain by voting no on the heavily tax-subsidized proposal.

That’s what Stokes hopes happens, adding to the tiny bit of momentum in improving state river policies, in both urban and rural areas.

While he isn’t tremendously hopeful that Parson’s flooding group will issue a final report that embraces the best science, he sees the mention of moving levees back in Atchison County as an opening for compromise, as long as it’s not undone by bad decisions elsewhere.

“All the good work that the working group is trying to accomplish will be worthless,” Stokes says, “if we continue to allow unabated development in the flood plain.”

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