By JOHN FLESHER
AP Environmental Writer
In many places, local officials are now trying a different way to control flooding. Instead of building levees to keep rising water out, many places are using federal and local tax dollars to buy up hundreds of homeowners so the landscape can revert to wetlands that soak up overflow waters.
In the town of Arnold, Missouri, for instance, wetlands helped the local population of 21,000 avoid serious damage in 2019 when the Mississippi River reached its second-highest level on record.
With the benefits of such schemes becoming abundantly evident, many more cities, villages and towns are now likely to embark on similar plans.
Every spring, melting snow in the north and seasonal rains send huge volumes of runoff into waterways that have been heavily armored by levees, dikes and walls to protect surrounding land from flooding. In the last century, this system usually held up. Now, though, it is being over-topped ever more frequently by heavy storms that scientists are linking to global warming.
Floods in the Missouri, Mississippi and Arkansas river basins caused $20 billion in damage in 2019, the second-wettest year on record. The National Weather Service forecasts moderate to severe trouble in 23 states this spring but said last week the risk had declined because of below-normal rainfall in the past two months. Longer term, one government assessment predicts the cost of annual flood damage in the Midwest will increase by $500 million by 2050.
To give rivers more room to sprawl, cities are keeping adjacent land for certain restricted uses. Some of it has been turned into parks that are allowed to flood when rivers rise. A few rural levees have been set back or removed to create wider flow paths. Wetlands have been restored as buffers.
In Arnold, the improvement was evident after last year’s Midwestern floods, said Robert Shockey, police chief and emergency management director. “Instead of 100 homes getting wet, we have a dozen.”
No one is suggesting replacing levees, dams and walls as a primary means of flood control.
“But they need to be augmented by natural assets,” said Wellenkamp, whose organization represents nearly 100 municipalities.
This plan is gradually catching state and federal policymakers’ attention. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has built dams and levees since the late 19th Century, is becoming more receptive.
Congress has instructed the agency in recent years to consider “natural” or “nature-based” flood-control measures.
“We are definitely trying to make sure we’re giving these features a fair shake,” said Maria Wegner, senior policy adviser at the Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Experts don’t know exactly how many land buyouts or set-asides have taken place to establish buffers, but said the instances are adding up. Wellenkamp’s organization has commissioned a study to compile a list.
Some projects call for restoring wildlife habitat, listing flood prevention as an additional benefit. In one case, the Army Corps moved back a levee south of Hannibal, Missouri, to open about 325 acres to river flow.
But for many towns, flood control is the primary motive.
Davenport, Iowa, is in the vanguard of rethinking flood control. Even after waters covered its downtown business district last year, the town decided against having a flood wall. Instead, it will continue relying on parkland along its 9-mile-long Mississippi riverfront and on a 300-acre marsh.
The small town of Grafton, Illinois, perched where the Mississippi and Illinois rivers meet, also has rejected building walls that would obscure scenic views. Instead, it has used sediment dredged from a marina to establish a wetland in a shallow area of the Mississippi.
Similar projects are being tried elsewhere. Minneapolis went with natural floodwater-retention basins instead of levees to protect a new mixed-use development. Dubuque, Iowa, restored a Mississippi tributary creek and floodplain that had been paved over a century previously. Cape Girardeau, Missouri, established a natural area for floodwaters rather than extend a wall north of town.
Skeptics question whether natural features can play a big role.
“You’re seeing a little bit of a trend,” said Nicholas Pinter, an earth sciences professor at the University of California, Davis. But such projects are “small in scale and the exception to the rule.”
Some attempts to give rivers more room have drawn resistance — particularly along the Missouri, the nation’s longest.
Hundreds of farmers and business owners sued the Army Corps for establishing more wildlife habitat along the Lower Missouri, saying the projects have worsened flooding. And property-rights activists have been opposed to federal plans to expand the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge from 16,600 to 60,000 acres by purchasing land from willing sellers.
Still, there are signs that attitudes are changing. Republican senators from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska introduced legislation in March calling for the Army Corps to use “both structural and nonstructural measures” to control flooding on the Missouri.
A new Corps plan for the Lower Meramec River, hit by three record floods since August 2015, endorses wetland restoration and property buyouts.
In Atchison County, several farmland owners are negotiating to sell more than 500 acres to move back parts of a levee on the Missouri River.
“I’d much rather be farming it, but I’ve come to the realization that it’s not going to happen,” said tenant farmer Phil Graves, who grew corn and soybeans on land now smeared with up to four feet of sandy silt from last year’s flooding.
If completed, the project could set an example for other flood-prone counties along the Missouri, said Dru Buntin, deputy director of the state Department of Natural Resources.
Already, said Buntin, “you have landowners themselves talking about how this approach benefited them, as opposed to state or federal agencies trying to convince them.”
After last year’s flooding, nearly 750 farmers in a dozen heartland states volunteered for a federal program that pays to take property out of production and restore natural features. Federal disaster legislation provided an extra $217.5 million for conservation easements in 13 hard-hit states.
“We don’t have anywhere near the funding we’d need” to accept all who want to participate, said Jon Hubbert of the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Des Moines, Iowa.