We’ve watched slow-motion flooding along our great rivers as the Corps of Engineers has breached levees and released water from dams to flood homes and farms in the Ozarks and along the Mississippi. Now a great slug of water is moving down the Missouri River to cause loss of property and perhaps loss of life, at great expense to public and private entities.
Through private actions and vast public works projects, the damage from flooding seems to be aggravated. Why have we done this to ourselves?
The river systems of the Upper Midwest evolved over the past 20,000 years, as the ice sheets retreated from as far south as the centers of Missouri and Illinois. Runoff from the melting ice sheets combined with the annual snowmelt to create the modern Missouri River, which abuts the north border of the Ozarks in its last 200 miles before entering the Mississippi. The wide floodplains of the Missouri and its tributaries were created over thousands of years as the rivers undulated horizontally within well-defined boundaries, depositing silt over the entire floodplain as seasonal high water levels receded.
In the Ozarks, south of the glaciated area, streams have been carving their way downward through the rocky plateau for eons, generally running away from the highest areas of the Ozarks, north to the Missouri River (the Niangua via the Osage, the Maries, and the Gasconade, the Meramec and the Big, among the larger tributaries) and southeastward (the St. Francis, the Black, the Current, the Eleven Point and the White), the to the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers.
The past landscape supported populations in cities (Cahokia, among others) and small villages. Accounts of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and in the journals of Lewis and Clark illuminate the character of these broad, shallow and ever-changing waterways, teeming with wildlife, bounded by bottomland jungles. Henry Schoolcraft and Silas C. Turnbo described the rivers and creeks of the interior of the Ozarks as they appeared in the early and mid-19th century.
Toward the end of the Turnbo passage, he describes the difference between the high-water and low-water levels of the White River to be 36 feet within 1898, while a 15-foot fluctuation causes enormous damage today. Under the perceived security of flood control structures, we’ve made ourselves vulnerable.
As population increased, great economic opportunities appeared that were dependent on controlling the rivers. The control mechanisms, aimed limiting inundation and maintaining a navigation channel, created vulnerability in exchange for promised economic opportunities.
The engineered structures of the Mississippi floodplain are well-known or at least well-documented. John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America is masterful account of the engineering feats and political maneuvering that resulted in the channelized lower Mississippi. Thad Snow‘s writings about the effects of floods on the sharecropper population of Missouri’s Bootheel provide a sharply local point of view.
The levee system and the system of locks and dams on the Mississippi, enabling navigation by huge strings of barges, combined with crop farming in the drained delta to provide major components of the North American agricultural economy.
Much less has been written about the history of the modifications of the Missouri River. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, is mainly focused on water projects farther west, but gives some attention to the activities of federal Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management’s efforts on the Platte and Upper Missouri in furtherance of of an idea that has great political appeal: rain follows the plow. Paul Vandevelder’s May 25, 2011 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, “Let the River Run,” makes this claim, referring to the floods of 2011:
This is a man-made disaster, the legacy of an earlier generation of politicians, farmers and ranchers who made a lot of bad (and very expensive) decisions to correct short-term problems on the Missouri River when the best available science — including findings in a 1934 corps report — warned Congress that those solutions would create dire long-term consequences.
In the Ozarks, federal modification of streams has taken two forms: multi-purpose impoundments and federalizing of portions of the Jacks Fork, Current, Eleven Point, and Buffalo rivers. Like the projects on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, these projects displaced thousands of small landowners and turned local streams into small pieces of federal management plans. The projects created economic opportunities, providing construction jobs initially, as well as providing a foundation for tourism, manufacturing of boats and accessories, and electrical power.
What about flood control? Before Table Rock Dam was constructed, flooding on the White River in Branson and Hollister sometimes reached levels more than 10 feet higher than the post-dam record reached a month ago. However, before Table Rock Dam was built, there was much less in the way of housing and other kinds of development in the floodplain, but there was more agriculture.
Points of view
Some people, through a combinations of intellectual ability, education and personality, can tell us more about our physical and social environment than we could perceive ourselves. Can we trust the points of view of these people?
Paul Vandevelder and the late Marc Reisner are strident in their denunciation of dam-building and the other aspects of massive pork-barrel projects that have fattened engineering and contracting firms (and their suppliers), enriched agribusiness giants, and concentrated political power, creating great wealth for a few from the destruction of big chunks of the natural world and forcing relocation of people, primarily poor.
Thad Snow, a progressive (or you might say “radical”) farmer who drained 1,000 acres of what he called “Swampeast Missouri” (he is credited with coining that term) before reaching the conclusion that wild lands should be left alone and becoming an advocate for the descendants of black slaves whose meager way of life made them completely vulnerable to floods.
In Daily Yonder, farmer Richard Oswald complains that federal policy no longer supports the flood control projects that transformed the valley of the Upper Missouri River so that it could feed the world and allow other development of the floodplains:
But America needs to know that our great flood control projects weren’t built for motor boats, river chutes, and pallid sturgeon. They were built for a reason by the greatest generation who knew that you don’t fight life and death wars to a draw.
Food, air, and water are essential to both life and freedom; flood control projects were built for a reason. It’s time to remember what that reason was.
Similarly, but from a different angle, MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow, also argues that the Greatest Generation built the infrastructure that made America great and that we’re risking future jobs if we cut federal spending for infrastructure projects.
What should we do?
It seems indisputable that public works projects have economic benefits and moral hazard. The direction of revenues raised by taxes to specific projects spurs economic activity. A part of the economic benefit of water projects is flood protection, so that roads, wastewater treatment plants, houses and business buildings, with private investment, are constructed in floodplains. Crops are planted in floodplains. Flood insurance and crop insurance are available, through government-sponsored programs, and the insurance premiums at least partially offset the public cost of the moral hazard. Private owners pay property taxes on structures in floodplains.
Should we invest more, as Richard Oswald suggests, extending the life of the flood control projects of the 1940s? Should we encourage the continuation of projects such as the wetlands reserve program (WRP) that pays farmers to allow riparian cropland to become marshland and bottomland forest? Will WRP and Corps of Engineers’ wetland restoration projects make a real difference in the intensity of flooding and the future of the pallid sturgeon?
My fear is that the various federal programs have contradictory effects in part and that the net effect is too small. We don’t receive the potential economic benefits and the environmental degradation and flooding risk are not abated. But each program is responsive to a constituency that keeps a congressional representative in office.
Would we be better off in the long run by investing in the disassembly of malfunctioning infrastructure and buying out structures in floodplains? What do we do with a reservoir that has lost its storage capacity due to silting, dredge or drain? What scale of wetland restoration is necessary to make it really work?
I’m interested in knowing how other people think and feel about these issues. Please comment.