As record flooding continues across the Midwest, the region’s mayors and the Army Corps of Engineers are looking for solutions to mitigate future floods.
The mayors of 89 towns along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers recently said they don’t want to build a massive system of levees and floodwalls similar to what’s on the lower Mississippi River. Instead they want Congress to provide a revolving loan fund and increase the size of mitigation grants. But one Corps official says an infrastructure solution may be the best resolution.
“Because of the damages of the 1927 [Great Mississippi] flood, all the states worked together and said this can't happen again,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser, the deputy chief of engineers/deputy commanding general at Corps’ headquarters in Washington D.C., and president of the Mississippi River Commission, at a public meeting of the commission in Memphis. The commission oversees the system of levees and barriers in the lower Mississippi. “There are so many people, even in the northern reaches of the Mississippi and out in the Missouri base, that would like to have similar system that [people] have here and so maybe this event is something that will help trigger that. The Mississippi River Commission is always willing to help in any way we can.”
High river waters continue to breech levees, floodwalls and temporary barriers in the Midwest, the most recent breach was in rural St. Charles, Mo., north of St. Louis on May 6th. The Mississippi River in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri has spent more than 40 days above flood stage this spring, and it is forecast to stay above flood stage—about 15 ft along the river all three states— for most of May and possibly into June.
Portions of the river have been closed to commerce since May 7 and 11 locks and dams have been left open, making the river unnavigable for barges that carry the $500 billion worth of commodities and other goods that move through it annually. State roads and interstate highways have been shut down near the river in parts of all three states.
Around Davenport, Iowa, on May 2, the Mississippi broke its record crest of 22.63 ft set during the 1993 floods on May 2 when waters reached 22.64 ft. The state of Iowa has received more precipitation in the past 12 months than in any one-year period in 124 years of state-recorded data, according to state data.
“The entire region is now focused on preserving our water pollution control plant from the damage caused by the river surge inundating the plant,” said Bob Gallagher mayor of Bettendorf, Iowa. “The plant is still functioning at maximum capacity, with pressure continuing to build throughout the system. That's our number one priority now, and we have secured pumps and the National Guard has helped to relieve that pressure, hoping to save the plant.”
Gallagher said nothing – not a levee, a flood wall, or natural barriers, which his town uses —can help , when as much rain falls as has fallen this year, “there's just no way to avoid this situation.”
Mayor Joanne Smiley of Clarksville, Mo., said the city has used more than 3,000 tons of gravel and about 1,000 tons of sand to make more than a million sandbags — bagged by volunteers, Army Corps personnel and non-violent offenders from local prisons.
“The cooperation comes to us every time, but doing it again and again and again, and spending the kind of money that we have to,” is unsustainable Smiley said. Congress needs to establish a revolving loan program for disasters and increase the size of mitigation grants, she said.
Such a revolving loan fund is the focus of a group of 89 mayors of the Missouri River Cities and Towns Initiative. The group’s platform is to increase the federal disaster mitigation grant fund from $22 million to $146 million. They are also asking Congress to establish a $100-million resilience revolving loan fund and are advocating for pre-disaster grants to build more resilience along their riverfronts. The mayors stressed they do not want a levee system such as the Mississippi River and Tributaries System [MR&T], a system of levees and natural protections that exists from Cape Girardeau, Mo., to Venice, La., built after the 1927 floods.
“Our recommendations do not involve the establishment of extensive levee systems because one, that would be cost prohibitive. Two, it would be sort of impractical, given the geographic differences in the northern stem,” said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the mayors’ initiative.
The city of Davenport, Iowa, for one, has said that it does not want to levee its riverfront and prefers to fight floods in other ways. “We have advocated that this is not a one city versus other city issue,” Gallagher said. “The corridor itself needs to be studied, and that's where the pre-disaster mitigation grants come in, as well as the [resilience] revolving loan fund. We might have the wherewithal at that point to try to work together on a system and increase all of our resiliency and our ability to withstand a flood.”
The initiative wants pressure release areas created where the water can be released from the river into a reservoir or other body of water in a controlled manner, Wellenkamp says. They also want inventive, whole-system solutions from architects and engineers. The Army Corps agrees with the group. “They're looking at it. We have to establish key areas where pressure can be released in the northern and middle reaches of the river valley. Currently, it's just a mishmash of different flood control features, both natural and man-built,” Wellenkamp said.