A Role for Parks: The Case for a Long-Overdue Approach to Flood Control

Article excerpt

News reports this spring and summer were full of stories about major flooding of rivers in the U.S. heartland. Thousands of people were displaced, and millions upon millions of dollars were lost in damage to developed infrastructure. The accounts of this year's river flooding follow a now familiar pattern, echoing episodes from previous years in which flooding overwhelmed levees, wreaking extraordinary damage upon lives and property.

We allow and even encourage people to build homes and businesses in flood-prone areas. We go further than that, though: We incentivize it with absurdly low-cost flood insurance and exorbitant public expenditures to protect private property in high-flood-risk areas. After flooding occurs, we even allow residences and businesses to rebuild on those same locations, almost guaranteeing future damage.

Flood control methods in America have been governed by the philosophy that flooding is bad and that the best management practice is therefore to prevent floodwaters from rising and quickly move them away from developed infrastructure. This is why we have spent billions on channelizing and straightening rivers, turning them into concrete-lined trapezoidal drainage systems instead of managing them as free-flowing natural means of flood prevention and control.

Yet in spite of the hundreds of billions spent on chopping, channelizing, straightening, and narrowing rivers, along with vast attendant levee systems, we still face great threats and substantial destruction annually. The American Society of Civil Engineers in its most recent quadrennial report card on America's infrastructure gave our nation's inland waterways and levees grades of D and D-. Nor are the long-term prospects of improving the situation promising. Federal funding to address these types of infrastructure issues is likely to be greatly diminished. If anything, flood prevention infrastructure problems could become far worse, due to federal deficit reduction plans.

There is a better way to coexist with our increasingly floodprone rivers and waterways and that is to let them flood in a designed, calculated way across natural floodplains. …