Let Nature Manage Floods

Written by Todd Sampsell and Michael Reuter

We have witnessed one of the greatest floods in recorded history on the Mississippi River. Towns, homes, businesses and thousands of acres of farmland in Missouri and in other states were inundated by water. The impact on people's lives is beyond measure. And it may not be over yet.

We at The Nature Conservancy extend our hope for a quick recovery to those affected by the flood. We, too, have deep roots in the Mississippi basin, with staff living and working from the headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico.

While the flooding was devastating, it was a relief to see that many communities were spared because of the management of the flood to date by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps' approach reflects an intergenerational investment in river engineering structures that began 83 years ago.

Following the devastating 1927 flood that claimed more than 500 lives and displaced 700,000 people, the Army Corps decided that a "levees-only" approach to flood management was not effective. As a result, the agency began purchasing easements along the river to create "floodways" to help route high floodwaters through the system, taking advantage of the flood plain's natural ability to convey and store floodwater.

The 2011 flood is the first time that three floodways, including the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, were operated simultaneously, successfully demonstrating the importance of connected, fully functioning flood plains as thousands of human lives and billions of dollars in infrastructure were spared during this event.

Flooding is a natural part of a river's annual cycle and historically provided many benefits to people and wildlife. In the past, however, when rivers flooded, the water poured onto flood plains, which are designed by nature to absorb floodwater.

Flood plains straddle our great rivers and function like time-share apartments, providing nutrients, shelter and spawning areas for river fishes at one time of the year, feeding areas to waterfowl and shorebirds at another and terrestrial habitat to wildlife like black bear at still another time.

But we've altered our rivers' natural functioning here in Missouri and throughout the United States by converting forests and wetlands to other uses, building dams and levees and otherwise breaking the connection between rivers and their flood plains. There have been significant economic benefits associated with many of these actions, but the increasing frequency, severity and cost of these floods suggest we are taking too much from this river system.

In preparing a vision for 21st century flood management, we must build on the features of the current system - such as connected, fully functioning flood plains - while correcting the problems. Through our Great Rivers Partnership, The Nature Conservancy is committed to shaping a shared vision for the whole Mississippi River system, developed with and shared by the navigation industry, the flood control community, the agricultural industry, various social and environmental interests and others.

Success, however, will not only require a long-term vision shared and implemented by all stakeholders in the basin, it will require a long-term investment in protecting and restoring flood plains and other river habitats that help absorb and store floodwater. Doing so will not stop the river and its tributaries from flooding. It will, however, help reduce the catastrophic effects on people living along those rivers.

As Congress debates the 2012 budget, it should provide adequate funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Farm Bill conservation title programs and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer programs that target the Mississippi River, all of which help protect or restore wetland, grassland and flood plain habitats for the benefit of people and nature.

Even in difficult economic times, investing in nature is an investment in our safety, health and livelihoods.

This editorial was published in the June 21st, 2011 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. View the article on the Post-Dispatch website.

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