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River Reclaims Its Natural Floodplain

June 22, 2008

By Tim Bryant and Terry Hillig, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jun. 22–FOLEY–Tim Johnson, shirtless and deeply tanned, looked out over his riverfront property, which was under several feet of the flooding Mississippi River.

Obscured by trees standing in algae-covered floodwater was his house, perched on concrete piers to try to keep it above harm. But record flooding in 1993 sent the river into his home, and the Mississippi returned last week.

“I had three feet of water in my house in 1993, and I expect I’ll have three feet in it this year,” Johnson said as he stood on the levee above his 62 acres.

A hundred yards away, the Mississippi could be heard gushing over the earthen levee. The river went over or through many levees in the area, sending floodwater across farm fields toward Foley, Winfield and elsewhere.

Johnson, 45, a carpenter, loves living on the river. He knows floods are part of his life but is somewhat taken aback by their growing size and frequency.

“It’s not the 500-year flood anymore,” he said. “It’s the 15-year flood.”

Environmentalists say the relatively rapid repeat of record floods should come as little surprise. In too many places, levees overtopped or washed away 15 years ago have been rebuilt or raised, they say, adding that squeezing rivers inevitably forces floodwater higher.

Some areas ignored the 1993 lesson that building in flood plains is unwise, said Dan Sherburne, research director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. Levee failures on the Mississippi show the river is a nearly irresistible force, he said.

“Levees breaking is an indicator of how the river is returning to its natural flood plain in some respects,” Sherburne said.

This month’s flooding gives the region another chance to reduce future floods, he said. The first step is to return areas of “good natural flood plains” to the river.

“A lot of old levees are failing or could fail,” he said. “If this kind of flooding repeats itself, the question is: Do you invest a lot of money to restore and maintain them, or do you take into account the broader perspective of protecting communities up and down the river?”

Susan Heisel, Missouri director of the Nature Conservancy, said the current flooding demonstrated that levees disconnected the Mississippi from its flood plain.

“You see these levees break and then you see how the projected crests downstream are lowered,” she said.

Alan Dooley, the corps’ spokesman in St. Louis, said deciding which levees to maintain, strengthen or remove was complicated.

In many instances, levees are sensible and necessary, he said.

The corps began building the world’s largest levee system on the lower Mississippi after the colossal flood of 1927 displaced more than 600,000 people.

In 1903, when East St. Louis lacked flood protection, the Mississippi swamped the city. Such flooding now would cause havoc with key rail and highway hubs, Dooley said. Levees in Wood River protect the ConocoPhillips refinery that not only produces gasoline but also much of the jet fuel used in the Midwest, he said.

In short, continuing to invest in levees is worthwhile despite the risk that some might fail, he said.

“In the end, even the best levee is not perfect,” Dooley said. “But, hey, life has risk in it.”

Adolphus Busch IV, a founder of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, said levee breaks allowed the Mississippi to spread naturally across its flood plain.

“This clearly shows how much this amount of flow 50 to 100 years ago would not be that big a deal because the water would have so much more room to spread out,” he said.

Busch, who lives in the flood plain in St. Charles County, favors a halt to construction of levees designed to withstand 500-year floods. “You hate to see bad things happen to people, but it’s nature,” he said.

HOME BUYOUTS

Missouri and Illinois responded to the 1993 flood by offering voluntary buyouts to homeowners in flood-prone areas.

Susie Stonner, spokeswoman for Missouri’s Emergency Management Agency, said about 5,000 homes had since been removed. The $100 million program has produced $400 million in savings in emergency services, flood-related rental help, infrastructure rebuilding and other costs, she said.

“That’s a very substantial savings,” Stonner said. “More important, you’ve moved people out of harm’s way.”

St. Charles County led the state with 1,374 residential properties purchased within the 100-year flood plain.

Illinois undertook a 3,100-property buyout program that included an entire town — Valmeyer.

“A lot of the places that flooded in 1993 are now open space,” said Paul Osman, who administers flood plain programs for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Osman said communities, including Grafton, that lacked levees but enforced flood plain regulations suffered little flood damage this year.

“It is a very relaxed atmosphere in Grafton right now — no worries, a completely different atmosphere than previous floods,” he said. “You can feel it.”

Osman said federal, state and local officials now discouraged construction in flood plains. He said there were far fewer structures at risk in Calhoun and Jersey counties than 15 years ago.

The 1993 flood forced out hundreds of Grafton residents. Since then, federal, state and local governments have spent more than $2.7 million to buy out 100 homes, businesses and lots.

Before the 1993 flood, Grafton had about 980 residents. It now has about 700 but is slowly growing.

In 1994, city officials led by the late Mayor Gerald “Windy” Nairn established a tax-increment financing district and bought 235 acres of blufftop land that would become the Grafton Hills subdivision. Eighty-two homes have been built there, as well as an elementary school that opened in 2005.

Mike Prough, coordinator of Jersey County’s flood plain management program, said that 70 structures in the county were flooded last week but that most were modest weekend or vacation homes. Since 2002, owners of about 25 such structures have agreed to raze them. Prough said there had been 900 buyouts of flood-prone property in the county since 1993.

A levee failure 15 years ago destroyed most of Valmeyer, in Monroe County. But the town was rebuilt on higher ground, thanks to buyouts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state, local and private funding.

“We’re happy we’re 400 feet higher than we were the last time this took place,” said Dennis Knobloch, who was mayor during the 1993 flood.

Valmeyer had about 900 people before the 1993 flood. Now, it has about 1,200 and continues to grow, Knobloch said.

The population at Johnson’s river home east of Foley is stable. It totals himself, his wife, Sandy, and their affable golden retriever, Diamond.

Last week, Diamond waded in the floodwater, then rolled in the grass atop the levee to dry himself in the sun, oblivious to the potential danger of levee failure.

Johnson plans to increase his home’s elevation this fall by putting steel columns on top of the piers already holding up the house. He has no plan to move.

“You could live in hurricane alley,” he said. “You could live in the flood plain. You could live in town with all the traffic. You just have to pick it.”

tbryant@post-dispatch.com — 636-255-7212

thillig@post-dispatch.com — 618-624-2526

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