Let Flood Plains Do Their Job

Article excerpt

People tend to measure flood relief by how quickly the checks are cut and the levees are rebuilt. But the true measure of the federal and state response to the Great Flood of 1993 will be how well the Midwest withstands the next flood. Will we spend billions of taxpayer dollars to simply return to the status quo? Or will we start to take long-overdue steps to move people and property out of harm's way?

The Mississippi River has sent us a very powerful message: that our reliance on short-sighted engineering solutions and our land management practices have made matters worse. Instead of allowing the river to fan out and take advantage of the natural flood control functions of flood plains, we have spent billions of dollars to force the river into ever-tighter channels, raising flood crests and creating a false sense of security that has encouraged flood-plain development.

More than three-fourths of the wetlands, which act as natural sponges, have been eliminated from the drainage basins of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers north of St. Louis since the late 1700s. It's no wonder that per capita flood losses were almost 2.5 times as great between 1951 to 1985 as they were between 1916 and 1950, after adjusting for inflation.

Even people in the Midwest, whose close ties to the land along the river's edge make moving seem unimaginable, have begun to question their faith in our structural flood control solutions. They are beginning to realize that even the best levees, dams and dikes can only provide a limited level of protection. Many of the private or locally built levees provide an even lower level of protection, as many are poorly designed or maintained. Over time, a levee's history - and its protective limitations - are easily forgotten.

While historic, the Great Flood of 1993 may ultimately be remembered as the disaster that reversed more than 100 years of faulty flood control policy.

Already, more than 50 communities have taken the first steps to partially or totally relocate from the flood plain. That so many of the region's river dwellers should be willing to pull up stakes is unprecedented.

Conservation groups like American Rivers do not think the government should tell people that they have to leave their homes. But those people who want to pursue non-structural alternatives to levees like relocation and wetlands restoration should be able to make real choices. These options not only reduce long-term risks from flooding, they also reduce the long-term flood relief burden on the taxpayer. …

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