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Environmentalists, Corps, lawmakers differ on floodplain, river management

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2013: WASHINGTON — "An enormous ditch ... running liquid mud" is how novelist Charles Dickens described the mighty Mississippi River after his brief visit to St. Louis in the 1840s.

If he had lived to return during the 1993 flood, the British author might have given a more colorful description of the massively swollen river as its currents swept southward carrying entire barns, uprooted trees and unearthed coffins.

During the 150 years between Dickens' visit and the Great Flood, long stretches of the middle and lower Mississippi — as well as its giant tributary, the Missouri River — were lined with levees that tended to narrow and deepen the "enormous ditch," cutting it off from some of its natural floodplain.

And many environmental and conservation groups contend that the gradual taming of the rivers have tended to exacerbate some flood events, especially when floodwaters are denied the opportunity to spread out in wetlands.

After the '93 flood, river engineer Gerard E. Galloway's report and related studies suggested greater emphasis on "non-structural" solutions — such as more floodplain limits and river access to wetlands — over structural flood-control approaches such as levees.

But as far as many environmental groups are concerned, too many of the lessons of the '93 flood were given short shrift or just ignored.

"There were wonderful reports written after the '93 flood but when you go back and look at them, you realize how little was done" in response to them, says Brad Walker, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment's wetlands and floodplains director.

"Some places got moved to higher ground and other properties were bought out, but there has been major development" in other floodplain areas, such as near the Chesterfield levee, he said.

Walker worries that climate change may exacerbate a trend of "a boom and bust in terms of water. The difference in Mississippi River height, in a very short time, is just amazing — with a severe drought last fall and early winter followed by flooding in the spring."

Todd Sampsell, Missouri state director for the Nature Conservancy, agrees that "when you look at flooding — even prior to 1993, and certainly since then — we've seen an increase in severity and a decrease in the periods between floods. They are happening more frequently and they are getting to be more severe."

Noting that the current system of levees and floodways "in and of itself, is not adequate to protect communities along these rivers," Sampsell said, "We also need to work with nature and not continue to work against it — to look at ways to incorporate natural floodplain connection in addition to levees, where appropriate, so we can lessen the impacts of flooding."

"We need to think about rivers as whole systems and stop taking a piecemeal approach when it comes to building or repairing levees. We've got to think about how we can protect places where there is infrastructure that needs to be protected by working system-wide to identify places elsewhere, where we can look at those reconnections" between rivers and their floodplains.

As an example of what can be done in this region, the Nature Conservancy bought a 7,000-acre corn farm along the Illinois River — an area now known as Emiquon — to convert into wetlands, which he said "help decrease flooding pressure in areas downstream."

While the conservancy does not yet have a comparable project in Missouri, Sampsell said, "We're working with the state conservation department and the Army Corps to identify places that would be strategic to look at reconnection opportunities to the river."

In addition, he said, the conservancy's great rivers partnership program in the Mississippi and Missouri river basins "can bring in a wealth of scientists and experts on hydrology and floodplain management."

'Mitigation' buyouts along the Missouri River

Since the '93 flood, the Corps has bought between 55,000 and 70,000 acres of floodplain land along the Missouri River as part of a federal program to mitigate levee construction elsewhere. The idea is to provide more room for floodwaters to spread out, helping habitat and lowering water levels.

But Walker contended the government is way behind schedule in setting aside mitigation land along the Missouri River for wetlands and other ecosystems. "They are supposed to buy 167,000 acres. And that's nowhere near" the more than 300,000 acres originally foreseen under the mitigation process, he said.

"At the rate they're going, it's going to take 30 years for just the 100,000 acres to be bought. And there are powerful lawmakers from Missouri who are trying to shut down that program," Walker said.

But Corps officials say they have been following rules and funding levels set by Congress for such "mitigation" buyouts, urban levee improvements and other work along the Missouri.

"We bought up tens of thousands of acres along the Missouri River from Sioux City south to St. Louis," said Jud Kneuvean, chief of the emergency management branch of the Corps' district office in Kansas City. "In some of that, the floodplain has been opened up. A lot of it is protected by non-federal levee systems that only provide nominal protection" of 10- or 20-year floods.

"The real focus is on reducing risk," said Kneuvean. "After 1993, there was a big push by FEMA and others to buy off homes and parts of communities," such as the Cedar City area near Jefferson City and part of West Alton. The Corps also has spent about $500 million since 1993 to fortify urban levee systems around Kansas City, he said.

A great deal of debate since 1993 has focused on the role of wetlands in buffering floods. But Busse, which acknowledging that "wetlands have a great deal of benefit," said their impact is limited in major floods.

"If you put a couple of sponges on the ground and pour a glass of water on it, and it soaks up that water and you don't get much runoff. And people say, 'Wow that was a really good benefit' — which it is," Busse said.

"But what you had in '93 was taking that same sponge and pouring a glass of water on it, and then another glass of water, and then throwing a bucket of water on it ... In '93, those wetlands for the most part had been fully saturated long before that peak occurred."

One dispute between the Corps and some critics — including hydraulic engineers at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale — centers on whether "river training structures" such as wing dikes on the upper and middle Mississippi River exacerbate floods. Some studies indicate that the structures, designed to facilitate river navigation, raise river levels in stretches of the middle Mississippi between St. Louis and Cairo.

Environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, have been urging the Corps to stop building such river structures until more independent studies are conducted about their impact.

"The work they are doing to maintain navigation is putting communities at risk, and to date the Corps has refused to reassess use of these structures but continue to build them at a rapid pace," said Melissa Samet, the NWF's senior water resources counsel, who cites studies contending that wind dikes and other river-training structures worsened the 1993 flood levels.

Eddie Brauer, a hydraulic engineer at the Corps' Applied River Engineering Center in St. Louis, takes issue with that criticism. "River training structures have been in use on the Middle Mississippi River for more than 150 years," Brauer said in a statement to the Beacon.

Citing studies by independent engineers, Brauer contended that the river structures "have been demonstrated, both through physical modeling and observation, to produce their desired benefits to navigation with no impact on river stages and flooding."

Another tool that the Corps uses to manage river levels are big reservoirs, usually on tributaries. Between the 1973 and '93 floods, the Truman Reservoir (which holds 5 million acre-feet of water) and the Mark Twain Lake (a million acre feet) were opened. But Busse said both of those reservoirs were filled up by the time that the '93 flood reached its peak, as were the six giant reservoirs on the main stem of the Missouri, in the Dakotas.

Walker, of the Coalition for the Environment, says that the conflicting goals for management of the Missouri River make it difficult for the Corps to negotiate the highly political environment.

"I don't necessarily blame the Corps" for its slow progress on some floodplain recommendations, he said. "They protect their mission and it is at times a conflicting mission" — involving flood risk prevention, navigation and other goals. "And the Corps has to respond to the directions of Congress."

Politics, flood control and river management

In general, lawmakers on Capitol Hill tend to focus on flood control when rivers are high, on river navigation and drinking water when flows are low, and not so much in-between on politically tough questions related to buyouts and limiting commercial and residential development in floodplains.

After the 2011 flood, U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., helped form a bipartisan Senate "working group" of 14 senators who represent the seven states in the Missouri's vast basin.

Those senators (and their predecessors) have bickered for years about river-management priorities along the Big Muddy, with Missouri lawmakers stressing flood control and navigation, and upriver senators more interested in keeping water in the reservoirs for recreation and irrigation. While some progress has been made, the politics of the Missouri River has made it tough to come to agreements during droughts.

"I see the glass as half full rather than half empty on river issues," said McCaskill in an interview. "We reached an agreement that the No. 1 priority in managing the Missouri River is flood control. And I think that agreement still stands."

Arguing that "we are in much better shape today than we were 20 years ago" in terms of the flood threats in St. Louis and Kansas City, McCaskill said, "We have avoided some flood situations in the 20 years since the '93 flood because we're better at early warning and preparation."

But the Missouri senator added that "there are still challenges because a majority of the levees are still private levees," which means "you lose control over the seamlessness of the flood protection." However, she said levee work "has been done in both the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, and up and down" the rivers.

Blunt also sees areas of progress, but adds: "It does concern me that we still face the same flood control issues that we faced 20 years ago. They seem to be becoming even more challenging, although the '93 flood was certainly extraordinary."

In a recent session with reporters, Blunt said he would "like to see us get back to the priorities of flood control and navigation and drinking water" in managing the Missouri River. "Part of the problem here is the federal dollars just don't match up with the federal priorities."

Many '94 recommendations still floating out there

If lawmakers are interesting in addressing long-term river and floodplain issues, Galloway can offer plenty of suggestions — many of which were made in his 1994 report but were never implemented.

After senators asked the head of the Corps after the 2008 flood to list what had — and had not — been done in response to the Galloway study, the official sent a long letter listing some progress but saying there is "much left to accomplish" in implementing those recommendations.

"The majority of those recommendations and their supporting analyses remain valid and still warrant implementation," wrote John Woodley Jr., the assistant Army secretary for civil works. However, he added that only 11 of the 97 "actions" suggested by Galloway had been fully implemented, although more than 60 other recommendations were still grinding through the system.

"There's a bunch of things that haven't gotten done because they are difficult to do, but we really need to do them," says Galloway. "After the big floods of 2011, Sen. [Barbara] Boxer, D-Calif., again asked the Corps to go back and look at [the Galloway report] again and do the same thing. Well, nobody's done anything. And so we still have some of the same problems that we had then."

Asked to summarize what still needs to be done, Galloway said: "We continue to have floods because our society still continues to do the things that we identified in 1994 and 1973 and other times as not being very smart. We continue to see people suffer needlessly because they are not aware of the risks they face — the threat they face from flooding."

Also, he said, "we don't have a national approach to dealing with floods. After the 1994 report, "they tried to do something with it, but it got caught up in the 'Gingrich Revolution' and was pushed aside. Our report said you need a definition, delineation of responsibilities. After the flood, that effort was started on Capitol Hill but got washed away by the Contract with America."

A key issue: "Who is responsible for what? The person in the community that is doing land-use planning or the individual whose home is in the flood plain and doesn't buy insurance when it's a requirement; or the bank that holds the mortgage and is supposed to enforce that requirement? All of those things we're not very clear on."

Also, he said, the structure of the National Flood Insurance program (administered by FEMA) and of many Corps projects tends to distance states from the process. "In many cases the states are sort of cut out, or choose not to be a player," said Galloway. There are some problems with that. The federal government can't be doing all things for everyone."

Another big issue — which the White House recently addressed but which may face a challenge in Congress — is the need to revise the 1983 "principles and guidelines" that guide the rules by which the Corps defines which projects to prioritize.

Under the old rules, "national economic development" — not safety, environmental concerns or social costs — was the key factor in that equation. Galloway's report suggested a wider definition, and Congress instructed the Corps in 2007 to revise the guidelines within two years.

"This spring, the president finally came out with it, and made it apply to all federal agencies, and said, 'We're going to consider these other factors,'" Galloway said. "But there is legislation in the House right now that would ban the Corps from applying these rules."

So it goes with the centuries-long quest to control Ol' Man River and his brother The Big Muddy. Cycles of flood and drought on the rivers and parallel ebbs and flows of funds and policies on Capitol Hill.

Editor's note: Robert Koenig won the National Press Club's top award for Washington correspondence for his analysis of the government's response to the 1993 flood.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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