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Response to repeated floods: Good cops and bad

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2011 - In 1973, St. Louis experienced record high flood levels, even though many earlier floods had posted higher flows. In a prescient paper the late Prof. Charles Belt of Saint Louis University explained that the progressive constriction of our rivers by levees and by in-channel navigational structures called wing dikes caused of the unexpected high water. Belt was criticized in a series of papers authored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which proceeded to enlarge levees and build new wing dikes in the river's channel.

In 1993, St. Louis and many other areas experienced flood levels that were far higher than those in 1973. How did our region react?

The Army Corps repaired and strengthened the Monarch Levee, fostering the replacement of several square miles of productive farmland in Chesterfield Valley by $2 billion of new commercial development.

The Corps redesigned the wing dike into a "bendway weir," then added 100,000 linear feet of these structures to the river channel, further interfering with the natural flow of the river.

Then in 1998 it published "Changing history at St. Louis" and "adjusted" the flows measured for prior historical floods to figures that were more to its liking, thereby "eliminating" the uncomfortable reality that water levels at St. Louis were increasing for a given flow rate.

Shortly after, the floods of 1995 and 2002 posted the 3rd and 14th highest stages ever recorded at St. Louis. Meanwhile, a handful of academics published papers supporting Belt, and environmental organizations worked to expand parks and greenways along the rivers. Then, in 2004, the Corps revised its estimates of flood frequency along the region's large rivers. Incredibly, as if Belt's paper and the subsequent, repeated episodes of high water were imaginary, the Corps concluded that future flood stages and flows along the middle Mississippi River, from St. Louis to Cairo, would be lower, not higher, than forecast in 1979.

This absurd conclusion was thoughtfully challenged by Ted Heisel, then director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, but to no avail. The Corps had its story and was sticking to it. Only a few months later, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, leaving the Corps subject to heavy criticism about the performance of its structures.

Soon after came the flood of 2008, which set new, record stages at many sites north of St. Louis. What was the response?

A flood conference was held at St. Louis, but the Corps declined to participate. Instead, it initiated major new projects to increase the height and strength of the Monarch and Howard Bend Levees. The Corps aggressively sought billions of dollars for its proposed expansion of the lock-and-dam system north of St. Louis. Major proposals for commercial developments in the floodplains - for example in St. Peters, Maryland Heights and in northeast St. Louis - were proposed.

This brings us to 2011. Another great flood is in progress, setting all time record stages at numerous points from Cairo to Baton Rouge. Except for the intentional detonation of the Birds Point levee and opening the Morganza and Bonnet Carre spillways, additional records would have been set. We'll never know whether any towns were saved, but we'll surely soon see the damaged, scoured farmland and sustain hundreds of millions of dollars of economic loss.

So, what is the response? Rep. Jo Ann Emerson has redoubled her criticism of environmentalists, as if they had anything to do with this flood. Meanwhile, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has just approved a preliminary site investigation by Ameren Missouri that proposes to transform 400 acres of productive floodplain farms near Labadie into a coal-ash landfill. Hearings are ongoing regarding the Maryland Pointe project that would convert 191 acres of floodplain farms near Creve Coeur County Park into another unnecessary commercial development.

But there is hope. Citizens in increasing numbers are protesting these plans. Environmental groups are becoming better organized. And thoughtful groups have fostered and expanded new parks and trails along our great rivers.

Notable new examples are the Edward "Ted" and Pat Jones-Confluence Point State Park, the eastern extension of the Katy Trail and the defeat of the huge casino complex proposed in the floodway next to Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area, just below confluence point. There's still plenty to do, and to undo, because higher floods are in our future. It's time for the long-term economic and environmental health of our community to be placed above selfish, short-sighted interests and "get-rich" schemes built on the backs of the taxpayer.

About the Authors

Robert Criss is a professor in the department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University. He is the coauthor of the 2003 book, "At the Confluence: Rivers, Floods, and Water Quality in the St. Louis Region."

Lorin Crandall is director of the Water Program at Missouri Coalition for the Environment. Lorin is a member of the Mississippi River Collaborative and the Nicolette Island Coalition and works extensively on policy issues related to water quality and the preservation and restoration of wetlands and floodplains.

Kathleen Logan Smith is executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. She is an outspoken advocate of wetland and floodplain preservation in Missouri who played an integral role in the successful fight to prevent a casino from being built near the Confluence.

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