Sun shining on a river flowing through agricultural lands.

Stories in Missouri

Restoring the Missouri River Floodplain

The construction of a levee setback will reduce flooding impacts on the community and restore a more natural floodplain.

Close up photo of a man smiling.

Flooding has always been a part of Ryan Ottmann’s life. “I’ve lived on the Missouri River my entire life.  I still live in the house where I was born,” he says.

Some of his earliest memories are riding in the back of a pickup truck with his dad checking for holes in the levee. “High water events were family events—whole community events, actually.” 

The first significant flood of Ryan’s life was in 1993. “The flood of ’93 was bad, and the flood of 2011 was a little worse,” he said.  “But the flood of 2019 was exponentially worse than all the other floods combined. I live right on the bluff, and it was water from bluff to bluff for 200 days—and damage beyond belief."

That’s when he realized that they had to do something different for the community now, and for the future. 

Satellite imagery showing river and flooded land.
Satellite imagery showing river and farmlands.
Catastrophic Flooding - March 16 to March 21 Satellite imagery of the 2019 flood in Atchison County at levee L536. © U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

A Different Approach

Ryan is president of the Atchison County Levee District (ACLD) in Missouri, one the largest levee districts in the country. In addition to maintaining 54 miles of levee along the Missouri River, the ACLD now had to develop a workable plan to minimize flood damage and address environmental concerns.

After discussions with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), it was determined that a levee setback—moving the levee to allow the river more room—was possible. The setback was the best longterm solution, but it wasn’t the easiest option.

“We were going to these landowners, many of whom are farming land that’s been in their families for hundreds of years, and telling them we are thinking about a setback, and that their ground would now be outside of the levee,” he said. “It’s not an easy ask.”

Building for the Future Hear from the partners about how they come together for this large-scale levee setback on the Missouri River.

Convening Partners

The young ACLD board needed help from a host of partners, including The Nature Conservancy, and support from previous generations within its community to partner with the landowners and get the project done.

Barbara Charry, floodplains and nature-based solutions strategy manager for The Nature Conservancy in Missouri was brought into the conversation. 

"One of the things that TNC can do as a nonprofit is to bring and convene people and so that's what we did," says Barbara. "We brought together our partners from across the state with the levee district and the USACE to set up a partner meeting in St. Joseph, Missouri in August of 2019."

The groups identified a lot of barriers and problems and yet there was a lot of excitement and interest in making something happen. "All partners played a critical role in a variety of ways to figure out a problem, find a funding source, find a technical solution, find a political solution and move things forward," she says.

Group of men looking at map on the back of a pickup truck.
Aerial view over of a rural town and water tower.

Backed by the Community

“Max Peeler is a crucial part of this levee system, and he has been for years,” says Ryan. “He has lived and breathed the Missouri River and levee system all his life. He's a very valuable source of information for us and he's also a landowner and a farmer in the section where we needed a setback."

Max agreed with the plan. "It's hard to give up the land," said Max. "You hate to give up land, but when we started looking at the wetlands it seemed like the right thing to do." Soon after, all the other landowners were on board, as well. 

We want this to be a pilot project, to show other communities that it’s possible.

President, Atchison County Levee Board

The setback benefits the local community, those downstream and the whole ecosystem that surrounds it. “It’s about preserving nature and coexisting with it. We both benefit when it’s done correctly,” says Ryan.

“We want this to be a pilot project, to show other communities that it’s possible, and set a precedent so it will be easier in the future,” he says.

"This is an incredible demonstration project that other landowners and levee districts up and down the Missouri River can look to as one of the tools in the toolbox to help with the catastrophic flooding that we're all facing right now on the Missouri River," says Barbara. 

This project is teaching the complexity of this type of system and the pathway forward. "Our intention is to take the information here and work with all of our partners to improve those programs so that it becomes easier for other levee districts to make this choice in the future," she says.

It gives me a lot of hope for the future.

The Nature Conservancy

Looking Toward the Future

New levee construction began in August 2020 and is expected to be completed by January. “We couldn’t have done it without the help from our community, our partners and from TNC,” Ryan says.

“This means a lot to me,” said Ryan. “We just had twins, a boy and a girl, and we named our son River James. So yeah, this river means everything to me.”

For Barbara, this project brings a lot of optimism about the future. "There are so many people out there working away in different agencies, and landowners who are willing to take a chance and do something different," she says. "It gives me a lot of hope for the future."

Map of project area showing location of previous levee and new levee.
Map of existing and new levee.

Impacts to the Community

The Missouri River experienced severe flooding in 2019, breaching over 100 levees, inundating 1.2 million acres, damaging infrastructure including farms, railroads, Interstate highways and closing approximately 470 roads. Missouri River levee L-536, in northwest Missouri in Atchison and Holt Counties, was breached in 7 locations and significantly damaged.

The 70-year-old levee could have been at risk for future breaches if reconstructed in the same alignment. The Atchison County Levee District in consultation with the impacted landowners, determined that a levee setback, moving the levee inland to allow more room for floodwater, combined with a modern design, was in the best interest of their community now and for future generations.


Devastation in Rock Port

Atchison County, Missouri sustained substantial damages to their homes, business, farms and roadways during the 2019 flood.

Flood waters over road with barricade closing the road.
A group of deer stranded on a flooded road.
Water flooded over road and farm buildings.
Collapsed section of a road.
Flood waters cover land at the Missouri state line.
Flood waters covering farmland and buildings.

2019 Flood Impact on Atchison County:

  • 56,000 acres underwater
  • 14 commercial businesses underwater
  • 166 homes flooded
  • 278 citizens forced to evacuate
  • 1,295 agricultural buildings flooded
  • $25 million (est.) in lost ag revenue
  • 121 miles of road destroyed
  • I-29 closed for approx. 187 miles between St. Joseph, Mo & Omaha, Ne.
  • US Hwy 136 bridge closed for 216 days
  • Major disruption of BNSF railroad

Inspiring Change

"Don't think you can't do it." That's Ryan's advice for other levee districts and landowners who are in a similar situation with repetitive flooding. "There are funding mechanisms to get this done. They're not easy but we also hope to help that become easier," he says. 

The group of partners continues to collaborate on this project with a goal to lessen the challenges that can make a project like this seem impossible. 

The factsheet below includes some of the technical aspects of the project along with contacts and representatives from partners who can provide additional information for interested levee districts, landowners and communities. 

L-536: Project Factsheet

Learn more about the levee setback project including technical details and environmental benefits.