Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Use the Natural Floodplain as Nature Intended

To which end, they will force themselves through
Flood-gates, or over weirs, or hedges, or stops in the water,
Even to a height beyond common belief

—The Compleat Angler

This seems like a year of natural disasters—a tragic tsunami in Japan, killer tornadoes in the Midwest, drought and wildfires in Texas and now a flood of historic proportions on the Mississippi.  The toll on human life and property is still being tallied for all of these disasters even as the floodwaters move inexorably downriver towards New Orleans.  Natural disasters cannot be prevented.  They will happen.  During and after these events many of us seek to better understand why and when they happen and make changes to prevent future disasters from taking a similar toll on the human population.

There are greater opportunities to mitigate and minimize the impacts of some disasters than others. Floods are one natural hazard where there are significant opportunities to reduce future threats to human populations, infrastructure and property.  There are different ideas about how to best do this and these will be discussed and debated in the coming months.

This week American Rivers added the Mississippi to its list of America’s most endangered rivers. Their message is simple.  A levee-only policy is insufficient. .

Trying to assert control over the Mississippi through levees, dams, and other flood control structures alone is doomed to lead to future flooding.  The force of water and sediment carried during a major flood is enormous. The historic Mississippi floodplain was 100 miles wide in places.  During a flood the river tries to reach those areas again.  In the end the cost of trying to hold the river within its banks through structural measures will be too high.  It will not be done. But in the absence of other changes in floodplain policies we will see the same devastation wrought by this flood occur again and again.  It happened as recently as 1993. During that flood, for the first time press coverage included concerns about continued reliance on levees and the resultant loss of natural flood storage in floodplains.  Restoring wetlands and floodplains in areas to allow for natural flood storage to reduce flood heights was identified as an important tool to reduce the peak heights of future floods.

However, right after the flood there were few changes.  In all a few hundred structures were moved out of the floodplain.  There were thousands of acres of wetlands and floodplains were enrolled in the Wetland Reserve and Emergency Wetland Reserve Programs, but these changes were not enough to significantly reduce the magnitude of destruction likely to result in  future floods.  Public interest and support for changes soon waned.  Tragically the Galloway report – which provided a blueprint for revising national floodplain policy, was largely ignored.

The cost of the 1993 flood was estimated to be between $16 and $18 billion.  Much of this cost was not due to the flooding itself, but to saturated farmland that did not dry out in time for planting and back-ups of sewers and other infrastructure.  During the 1993 flood the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not forced to break levees and open floodgates.  This is a bigger flood.  The costs will be much higher.

The 1994 Galloway report (formally “Sharing the Challenge: Floodplain Management into the 21st Century) was a forward look to identify what could be done to minimize the impacts of future flood events.  It was acknowledged that the federal government did not have the financial resources to continue to reimburse communities, states and individuals for losses that occurred.   In 1993 the nation and as well as the world at large was struggling to recover from a recession.

Here are a few ideas to start the discussion.

The Association of State Floodplain Managers has an excellent paper “ASFPM National Flood Programs and Policies in Review 2007” with a list of recommendations

Their recommendations for future action fall into four categories:

1. Stronger federal leadership
2. States, communities and individuals must take more responsibility
3. Inconsistencies and deficiencies need to be remedied
4. Completely new approaches should be considered.

This week the Association of State Wetland Managers released a draft report “Assessing the Natural and Beneficial Functions of the Floodplain,” which was prepared to help in evaluating, protecting and restoring natural floodplains.  Comments are requested by July 1, 2011.  The report provides extensive information about the importance of natural floodplains not only in providing storage for floodwaters, but also by providing benefits for water quality, fisheries and economic growth through recreational activities.

Let us work together to make changes now.  It will not be easy.  There are many difficult choices if the nation is willing to take action to reduce the potential for future damages like those we are experiencing now.

How do we keep this from ever happening again?

Additional Reading:
Association of State Wetland Managers Floods and Natural Hazards webpage:
ASWM’s webpage for Mississippi River flood news stories:
After the flood in Missouri:  farmland or wetlands
The Great Flood of 1993
Weather Pattern Behind Current Mississippi River Flood Similar to 1993
Flood Management Expert Gerry Galloway Discusses Future of Flood Control Strategies
Floodplain Planning and Management for Extreme Floods
CA:  Several cities are dependent on vulnerable levees (USA Today 2005)

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