You may not be able to step into the same river twice — but if the experience of Missourians is anything to go by, you can be flooded by the same river, over and over and over again. A state report issued last week begins to outline how the state could proceed in the wake of last year’s particularly devastating floods along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
It includes calls for setting levees further back from the river in one Missouri River county, better systems to track and keep the public informed as floods develop, and a more systematic approach to managing the Upper Missouri and Mississippi as a whole.
The report is not the final product of the group, which was called together by Gov. Mike Parson in July. Parson’s charge to the “Flood Recovery Advisory Working Group” asked them to release an interim report around the new year and a final report by the end of May.
Old Monroe farmer Adam Jones served on the commission. Jones said his priority for the stretch of the river system including Pike and Lincoln counties was “fairness” — ensuring different parts of the river system had similar levels of protection.
“I think its unfair that our area has somewhere between 25-50 year flood protection, when other areas have a much higher level of protection,” Jones said.
To that end, Jones said he’d backed a provision in the report calling for Missouri officials to “support the development of a systematic approach to levee design on the upper Mississippi River to ensure balanced protection.”
Jones noted that the meetings of the group so far had focused on the Missouri River, where flooding was ongoing and the damage to flood-related infrastructure was especially severe, but said he expected future meetings to devote more attention to the Mississippi.
For Nancy Guyton, the secretary of Friends of the Mississippi, a group representing the interests of Pike, Lincoln and St. Charles counties on issues of river management, fairness was also at issue. To be effective, Guyton said, Missouri’s approach would have to look at too-tall levees upstream from Pike County.
“The levees in violation should not be grandfathered into a plan. Enforcement policies must be set forth. Those impacted must see this corrected or planning will not be successful,” Guyton said.
David Stokes, the executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, a conservation group, generally gave the report high marks, but cautioned that he hoped that general references to “structural solutions” didn’t imply a flurry of new construction of levees along the Missouri and Mississippi. In the long term, Stokes warned, an “arms race” of levee-building would only push the water higher along the whole system.
“All that giving everybody a 500-year levee will do is cause a 600-year flood,’ Stokes said. “If it means adding a bunch of new levees on the Mississippi, it would be an expensive disaster.
Stokes supports giving the river more room to flow. He points to the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri as an example of how giving the river more space can benefit the environment and help reduce flood risks elsewhere.His immediate priority is heading off incentives given to commercial developments in floodplains in the St. Louis area.
Stokes acknowledged it might not be practical to set back levees further from the river where they already existed — but welcomed a recommendation in the report that the state back voluntary set-backs in a flood-prone part of Atchison County along the Missouri.
Jones, the commission member who farms in Old Monroe, also welcomed a recommendation that Missouri look into building an “enhanced flood monitoring system” to keep officials and residents up-to-date about flood developments. With the water rising, Jones said, it wasn’t always easy to make sense of the Army Corps hydrograph or other indicators of the height of the river.
Dru Buntin, the deputy director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, highlighted the call for continuing inter-state cooperation on river management as especially relevant for Missourians along the Mississippi. A joint hydrological study of the upper part of the river could, for instance, help give a better sense of the impact of the Sny and other up-river levees on Pike County, Buntin said.
In the meantime, Buntin added, members of the group had encouraged the state to keep an eye on the prospect of floods in the new year, in the light of “relatively saturated conditions” and already damaged flood protection infrastructure.
Jones, who has seen his farmland in Lincoln County flood year after year, said he was encouraged by the commission’s openness to new approaches.
“I think that people are being a little more receptive to the idea that we can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again,” Jones said.