People, Nature Can Both Benefit
This editorial originally appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on November 16th, 2011.
Omaha, NE | November 17, 2011
Michael Reuter is director of The Nature Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership. Mace Hack is director of the Nebraska chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
While the Missouri River flood recedes, what remains is a dilemma common to many great rivers today.
As friends and neighbors of those harmed by the floods, we hope that quick action is taken to patch holes and relieve suffering, and we hope this never happens again. Yet as architects of our own future, many of us can't help but notice the overlaid patchwork of scars from past floods, the increasing frequency of severe weather events and the rising cost of our traditional approach to flood management.
All of these factors demand a different approach. So today we face two choices: Create a 21st-century vision for the Missouri River — one that better protects our communities — or continue to follow the same path and expect different results in spite of the evidence to the contrary.
The Missouri River supports many uses — all important to our communities, our economy and our nation. The question is how to balance competing interests. We appreciate efforts to ensure that flood-risk management takes precedence over all else — people's lives should come first. Fortunately, smart flood-risk management is not necessarily at odds with other uses of the river — including agriculture, irrigation, water supply, hydropower, recreation, transportation and fish and wildlife.
Large rivers like the Missouri — and their floodplains, wetlands and backwater channels — are naturally designed to absorb, store and safely disperse floodwaters. Smart flood-risk management takes advantage of such natural assets whenever possible and in tandem with water management that employs reservoirs, levees and other engineering techniques to protect our communities.
If an approach that creates more room for floodwaters in floodplains is pursued, only the least-developed areas should be considered. And, just as important, such an approach should be pursued only in areas where landowners are willing to be fairly compensated for the increased flood protection they will provide to communities. We also would not advocate that all floodplains that play a part in flood-risk management be returned to their wild state. As our population grows, we know that we simply can't afford to take all of this land out of agricultural production.
In some cases, some farmers may be willing to have their crops inundated during floods because of the compensation they'll receive for the services they provide. This may mean levees are set back, removed or fitted with floodgates. In some cases, farmers may choose to return marginal farmland back to its wild state — again, in exchange for fair compensation.
This balanced approach to flood management can be more durable and less expensive, and contribute other benefits as well. For instance, functioning floodplains provide the natural filtration that produces clean water, the disbursement of nutrients that keep our lands fertile, the recharge of aquifers that help grow food and fiber, and the wildlife habitat that supports hunting, fishing and other recreational activities that are major economic boosters in this part of the country.
As we have seen over the past few decades on both the Missouri and Lower Mississippi Rivers, relying only on hard infrastructure, such as dams and levees, is typically expensive and often insufficient to keep communities secure.
It was the 1927 flood on the Mississippi that caused a course correction that ultimately led to a more balanced system in place today, which relies much more on connected floodplains and backwaters to disperse floods. Integrating natural river functions into flood management along the Mississippi played a key role in saving an estimated $100 billion in damages and protected thousands of people from harm during this spring's historic flooding.
Will the floods of 2011 shape the future of the Missouri River? To be sure, there are no easy solutions, but now is the time to imagine a better Missouri River. Any approach — including rebuilding the existing system — comes with a hefty price tag. The question we must ask, though, is which approach affords communities the greatest value for the money over the long term?
There is an opportunity for people to rebuild a brighter future for the Missouri River system. We encourage everyone with a stake in this river to address our short-term needs, but also to keep an open mind and imagine a future in which the Missouri River works for people and nature.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at www.nature.org. To learn about the Conservancy’s global initiatives, visit www.nature.org/global. To keep up with current Conservancy news, follow @nature_press on Twitter.