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Messenger: Foes from old Missouri River battles find themselves united
Tony's Take

Messenger: Foes from old Missouri River battles find themselves united

From the Tony Messenger's columns on levees and flood control along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers series
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Regan Griffin

Atchison County farmer Regan Griffin, a member of the local levee board, talks about the project moving the levee near his property back away from the Missouri River. A project map hangs behind him in the Corps of Engineers trailer near Rock Port, Mo. Post-Dispatch photo by Tony Messenger. 

Post-Dispatch metro columnist Tony Messenger discusses his series of columns about a project to move a levee in Atchison County away from the Missouri River and interviews a local farmer about how it happened.

ROCK PORT, Mo. — Ask Adam McLane who is responsible for the Atchison County Levee setback project and he credits the landowners whose farms in far northwest Missouri were flooded by the Missouri River in 1993, 2011 and 2019.

“It was the levee district,” says McLane, who lives in St. Louis. He’s the Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy. The world’s largest conservation nonprofit served as a convener of sorts on the project to move the levee back and connect about 1,000 acres of flood plain and wetlands to the Missouri River to protect against future flooding.

Regan Griffin is a board member for the levee district. His family has been farming the area for more than a century, with some of their land owned by ancestors as far back as the 1860s. He credits The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for creating an atmosphere of teamwork on the massive project.

“It was like a perfect Venn diagram,” Griffin says. The overlapping circles of interest led to a unique project that could become a flood-control model for the rest of the Missouri River Basin, if not the nation.

The project is due to be completed by mid-summer and could have an impact on St. Louis, more than 360 miles away, the next time the river floods.

Here’s a basic sense of scale for the levee setback: The $61 million project moved more than 1.5 million cubic yards of dirt, sand and clay from 1,040 acres of river bottomland to reconstruct the 5-mile levee much farther from the river. In a couple of locations, the new levee is nearly half a mile back from where the old one stood.

To accomplish that, land owned by several state and local government agencies, as well as local farmers and others, had to be purchased through river protection easements. Raw materials were scooped from much of that land and deposited on the new location of the levee, which was built with a more forgiving slope, to offer better protection when the river rises.

The old levee was built to a 3-1 standard, which meant for every horizontal 3 feet, it rose vertically 1 foot. The new levee is less steep, rising more gently at a 5-1 standard. That sort of construction takes more material, which is why it was important for all the landowners and agencies to offer their property to be used for “borrow pits,” building the levee with raw materials found nearby.

The new flood plain will not only protect farmers — and the interstate — from future flooding, but also will create fish and wildlife habitat and improve water quality by maintaining nutrients in wetlands that are often lost during destructive floods.

Standing atop the new levee with bulldozers grinding away in the background, T.J. Davey of the Army Corps of Engineers points at the massive expanse between the footprint of the old levee and the new one.

The project would not have been possible without funding from the Missouri Legislature, private fundraising from The Nature Conservancy and the cooperation of landowners like Griffin, who, after generations of worsening flooding were ready to “try something different.”

The seeds of change were planted shortly after the 2019 flood, when a committee created by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson recommended the levee be moved back, a rare occurrence in Missouri, where agricultural interests had long fought efforts to create more natural flood plain around the Missouri River.

Parson, a Republican, backed the effort, and encouraged funding. When he toured the levee setback in April, the governor suggested it should be a model for several levees in Holt County, to the south, and others regularly breached by Missouri River flooding in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.

The success of the project, at least in terms of the cooperation of so many interest groups that historically are at odds with themselves on flood policy, has The Nature Conservancy using the Atchison County Levee project to create a playbook that can be copied elsewhere.

“Sometimes you need a project like this to kick the tires on,” McLane says. “This is a pilot project that we need to see done more, not just in Missouri, but in a number of states. There are a lot of places where it is really needed.”

The river, McLane says, needs room to roam.

After the 1993 flood, scientists recommended that Missouri set aside 60,000 acres to allow the Missouri River to reclaim its flood plain when water rises.

Even after the Atchison County Levee setback is completed, though, only about 17,000 acres of flood plain will have been added along the river for flood control.

Much more work needs to be done.

Coming Monday: The view from St. Louis.

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