Guest Opinion: Is repairing levees just part of broader flood-loss strategy?

By Brig. Gen. John R. McMahon
Northwestern Division Commander

The Missouri River Basin Flood of 2011 has once again drawn our attention to the benefits and risks associated with the Missouri River Mainstem reservoir system, its tributaries, levee systems and the floodplain.
Despite tangible returns on investment of the multi-purpose system, we know it cannot capably handle the most extreme of flood events. Many Basin governors and members of Congress have called for flood control to be the top priority of the eight authorized purposes, and are advocating for increased storage in the reservoirs. As we know, empty space in the reservoir system facilitates the flood control purpose, but with direct implications to the other seven authorized purposes, including navigation, recreation, hydropower, irrigation, fish and wildlife, water supply and water quality. All need to be thoroughly considered through a public process. We should also be mindful that extremes on the other end of the spectrum in the form of drought are possible and have equally dire consequences to the authorized purposes of the system. We should look at this with our eyes wide open considering the hydrological history of the system and not just one year’s worth of data.
Notwithstanding these very legitimate calls for preeminence of the flood control purpose, there are many other means to the same end that ought to be considered as we go forward. Flood risk can be mitigated beyond creating more space in the existing system. Designating floodways, establishing flood corridor easements, applying new building codes, exercising emergency response plans, stockpiling materials and emergency supplies, improving maintenance and inspections, applying technology to assess best and highest use of the land – that is, uses in the floodplain that are compatible with risk of periodic flooding – buying flood insurance, changing local zoning ordinances, changing existing levee alignments or setting back levees to allow more room for the river are all examples of alternatives, both structural and non-structural, that should be considered.
As they are, we must work closely with landowners, levee sponsors – who decide – and local communities, states, tribes, federal agencies and others – who support – to ensure wise investment of scarce public funds is made.
Wise investment choices result from applying what we learned from past flood events in 1927, 1972, 1993 and 2011. Extreme flood events such as the 1972 flood in Rapid City, S.D., in which 238 lives were lost, and this year’s flooding throughout the Missouri River Basin, remind us that there are limits to man’s ability to eliminate all flood risk.
The dams certainly mitigated this year’s losses and the levees protected some communities – however, we must accept the fact that even these well-designed structures have limits. The citizens of Rapid City, with federal and state assistance, reshaped the once destructive Rapid Creek floodway into a “green-way” by converting most of the floodplain into a large park with bike paths and ball fields. They decided that no one should “sleep in the floodplain” and moved houses and hotels to new locations. They thought and acted differently about the floodplain, albeit on a much smaller scale. Today, Rapid City’s central park is a testament to smart floodplain management and a great example of wise investment.
Hence, a broader, more comprehensive approach that involves these other types of actions and measures may be warranted. With this unprecedented flooding event comes a rare opportunity to shape the future of the floodplain in positive, long-lasting ways, much as did our forefathers who envisioned and designed the system we enjoy the benefits of today. This opportunity begins with acknowledgement of the shared responsibility we all bear for our future in the floodplain – if we continue to pit upper basin states against lower basin states or one authorized purpose against the other, and resort to long-drawn-out litigation, if we fail to learn from the past – then our history is doomed to repeat itself, and this opportunity will be lost until the next calamitous flooding event occurs.
The 1994 “Galloway Report” following the 1993 flood event recommended specific policy and programmatic changes to how floodplain management is addressed.   Among other points, delineating responsibilities among basin residents, agencies and municipalities, each with a fiscal stake in the basin’s floodplain management effort, and embracing a proactive, shared approach, it envisioned reduced flood damages, minimized upheaval and emotional impact to families and communities, mitigated economic impacts, and a diminished overall toll on communities and taxpayers. When will we learn?
With shared responsibility comes a shared vision of the future.  And out of a shared vision comes shared purpose and real progress. The people in the Mississippi River Valley took a shared responsibility approach to following the great Mississippi flood of 1927, which killed about 500 people, left 600,000 homeless, ruined productive cropland and left 72 percent of the floodplain (16.8 million acres) in shambles. In the aftermath of that natural disaster, the people and their leaders got organized, conceived the Mississippi River and Tributaries project, got it authorized and funded with a focus on flood control and navigation, and have since seen more than $13.9 billion invested and $478.3 billion in damages prevented – that’s a 34 to 1 return on investment. Isn’t it time we in the Missouri River Basin got similarly organized and galvanized?
Our situation in the Missouri River Basin is different and yet we can still learn from our fellow citizens; we need to get organized around a common vision and with true purpose and acceptance of our shared responsibility. We have a singular opportunity to collaborate with one another given wide appreciation for the value of flood-risk management.  This collaboration, cooperation, coordination and communication has already begun with the establishment of the Missouri River Flood Task Force, a coalition of states, tribes, local communities, federal agencies and other partners, contributors and observers. The mission of the Task Force is to complete initial repairs to public infrastructure (e.g. levees, roads, bridges) by March 1, 2012 and to conduct long-term recovery activities to address overall flood-risk-reduction strategies and plans to keep comprehensive flood-risk reduction as the focused priority.
We have a conscious choice to make about the future and where and how we invest for it as a result of this flood event. While acknowledging the federal obligation to repair levees under Public Law 84-99 authority, the status quo of repairing what was without thinking in broader, longer terms about other options would be a missed opportunity. Let’s learn from the past and shape the future now. We are in a unique place in history where our decisions could have a significant and positive difference in the lives of our fellow citizens in the Missouri River Basin. Let’s work together to make wise, informed investment decisions for a better future in the basin.

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