Flood Spurs Renewed Debate About Levees

The floodwaters of the Mississippi River and other major rivers are slowly receding. In some areas, that lowering is happening with hiccups due to local rainstorms that slow drainage or even temporarily raise water levels again. All Upper Mississippi locks are open and St. Louis Harbor is open except for some restrictions on southbound tows.

As the waters drop, the damage is being assessed. Tom Brady, deputy director of readiness and contingency operations for the Corps’ Northwestern Division, which includes the Missouri River, said that the Corps’ preliminary estimate of the costs of repairing damaged levees along the Platte and Missouri rivers alone stood at $1.15 billion—and that estimate could go up.

Further south, Vidalia, La., was in its 242nd consecutive day of flood fighting at press time. On the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS), the W.D. Mayo Lock and Dam at Mile 319.6 has resumed lock operations. The Corps and Coast Guard were assessing the possibility of barge movements between Little Rock and Rosedale, Ark., by the middle of the first week of July.

Joe Kralicek, executive director of the Tulsa (Okla.) Area Emergency Management Agency, told attendees at a June 27 meeting in Tulsa that although the “muck-out” phase of flood cleanup was 95 percent complete, full recovery will take years.

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The flooding and silting on the MKARNS were so extensive that the Corps of Engineers is doing a special study of the configuration of the Arkansas River and some of its contributing streams as the waters go down. The study could result in changes to the floodplain maps of Tulsa County.

‘Blowout’ Areas

Among the topics under discussion by river stakeholders is the reconfiguring and/or repositioning of some levees—with the specific goal of allowing some “blowout” areas to siphon off flood waters in order to divert and lessen their impact downstream. Levees can be lowered or moved back to allow the river to stretch out in a circumscribed area.

Most river towns have argued for years that higher levees in one community merely send more floodwaters downriver to afflict other communities.

The town of Davenport, Iowa, deliberately refused to build a floodwall to protect its downtown. Two square blocks were flooded this time around when the corner of a protective barrier failed. “Davenport was designed to let the river in and thank God it did!  If it hadn’t, the city of Buffalo [Iowa, immediately downriver from Davenport], would have been gone,” said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi Rivers Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI), an advocacy group made up of towns and cities located on the Mississippi River. “The further south you go on the Mississippi River, the worse the effects.”

At the height of the flooding, a single levee failure on the Illinois River had an immediate impact on flood waters further south as floodwaters were diverted and reduced. Wellenkamp said the riverside towns of Grafton and Alton, Ill., “were direct beneficiaries” of that levee breach.

Wetland areas alongside rivers can absorb and divert floodwaters like sponges. The Nahant Marsh near Davenport fulfills that function, as does a marsh north of Dubuque, Iowa, and the Missouri Bottoms wetland across the river from Alton, said Wellenkamp.

Asked whether levees should be set back to allow more room for the river during floods, Wellenkamp said, “We hope so.” He added that landowners along the rivers should be compensated for any added risk of flooding their properties undergo because of levee changes.

Some river towns are trying to clear waterfront areas. But buying properties can be a slow and expensive process, said Wellenkamp. “Most Mississippi River towns don’t use eminent domain much, if at all, because it triggers long and expensive court battles. They prefer less overt, more cooperative ways to get agreement.”

The Corps has experimented with wetlands alongside the Missouri River, but these have proved controversial. In March 2018, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bears responsibility for causing recurrent flooding and damaging farms and property in four Midwest states along the Missouri River, because it allegedly weakened flood control measures in order to preserve or create wetlands for threatened species of birds and fish.

Galloway Report

These discussions are not new to Wellenkamp. He told The Waterways Journal that during a recent press conference, Corps officials were specifically asked whether they would continue to pursue natural infrastructure as part of the response to increased flooding, and they answered “yes” without hesitation. “We’re very proud of the Corps,” he said. “We see that natural infrastructure approach as absolutely necessary. This was a system-wide flood, and we need a system-wide response.” Both the duration and intensity of this year’s floods were unprecedented, he said, even if not every area matched 1993 flood records.

But as far as studies go, Wellenkamp says, “There is a report that deserves new attention. We went through all this in 1993.”

Wellenkamp is referring to the Galloway Report, commissioned after the 1993 floods and published in 1995. It was authored by retired Corps Gen. Gerald E. Galloway, Jr., who was then dean of the faculty and academic programs at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces National Defense University in Washington. Galloway was executive director of the Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee set up the by White House after the floods.

The report recommended pulling some levees back from the river to create more flood storage, said Paul Osmann, NFIP and Floodplain Management Director for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. In the years since then, the Corps has kicked the largest levee district on the Upper Mississippi River out of its program for illegally raising a levee and pushing that water off on others, he said.

Galloway’s report has receded from national attention, said Wellenkamp. “It gave warnings, and they’re happening now,” he said. The Galloway Report proposed a set of research topics. One of them was whether federal policies create “moral hazards” of greater flood damages by protecting floodplains for development and agriculture.