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New Floodplain Prioritization Tool Can Help Guide Restoration, Protection Efforts in Mississippi River Basin

Arlington, VA

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recently released the new online, interactive Floodplain Prioritization Tool, or FP Tool, to help identify opportunities for floodplain restoration or protection in the Mississippi River Basin.

“Protecting and restoring floodplains helps reduce flooding and avoids damages from further development of flood-prone lands, while providing improved habitat for fish and wildlife and offering people improved water quality and recreational opportunities,” said Kris Johnson, who is TNC’s deputy director of agriculture for North America and who led the development of the tool.

“We wanted to provide a science-based tool that can help decision makers—like federal, state and local governments, county planners, land trusts and businesses—optimize their protection and restoration investments and minimize the impacts of development,” Johnson added. “The FP Tool does just that. It’s designed to help guide investments and assess tradeoffs related to different goals, like water quality, wildlife habitat and estimated flood damages.” 

The Floodplain Prioritization Tool is designed to help guide investments and assess trade-offs related to different goals, like water quality, wildlife habitat and estimated flood damages.

Kris Johnson TNC’s deputy director of agriculture for North America

Johnson said he expects the tool—which utilizes data developed by TNC and provided by several partners—will be most useful when applied in partnership with local planners and stakeholders. For example, the FP Tool is currently helping inform a collaborative floodplain management plan for Missouri’s Lower Meramec River. The plan is being guided by an integrated, multi-disciplinary planning process through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Silver Jackets program. At the Meramec, TNC and its partners have created a pilot, local-scale version of the tool that demonstrates the potential to adapt the basin-scale version to local partnerships and local floodplain management projects. 

Promoting economic and environmental security and stability for communities across the region is the key focus of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, an association of mayors from cities along the Mississippi River corridor. Colin Wellenkamp has served as the Initiative’s director since its inception in 2012. This year, after record floods ravaged many of the communities he represents, flood-risk reduction weighs heavy on his mind.

“In the past, you might have portions of large, thousand-acre-plus floodplains that flooded every 25 or 30 years. Now we’re seeing entire floodplains flood more often, and they’re inundated with water for months at a time,” Wellenkamp said. “If we have to go through many more years like 2019, natural assets like floodplains will be the only way we’ll be able to deal with the impacts of flooding, which are becoming worse. New walls and levees exacerbate the problem for communities and their neighbors. In many cases, the more of these ‘control’ structures you put up, the more hazards you create. We must develop with the river, not change the river to accommodate our development or plans.”

The Floodplain Prioritization Tool can help us guide protection or restoration investments or better understand the impacts of the development choices we make.

Director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative

Wellenkamp added that the mayors he represents are becoming increasingly interested in the role that nature itself can play in helping reduce flood risks while producing other benefits. He says that’s because people better understand the value of the services healthy floodplains produce.

“Floodplains give rivers more room when they flood and reduce pressure on constructed protection measures, like dams and levees,” Wellenkamp said. “Because they filter nutrients that degrade water quality, they can help provide cleaner water for our communities. And they offer critical habitat for wildlife and help bolster outdoor tourism and recreation. All these services have dollar values, and the Floodplain Prioritization Tool can help us guide protection or restoration investments or better understand the impacts of the development choices we make.”

Wellenkamp also believes the science-based reports the tool generates can help communities when applying for federal, state or county grants aimed at reducing flood risks or improving water quality or wildlife habitat.

The development of the FP Tool was supported in part by the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation and the McKnight Foundation.

Learn more about the tool at FPTool.org.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.