Missouri county tries new approach to avoid flooding
When Regan Griffin watched the river forecasts in early 2019, he was hoping for the best.
Perhaps the Missouri River would exceed its levees in some places, but it would spare its community.
This year turned out to be one of the worst floods in the recent past. Parts of Atchison County where Griffin lives have been underwater for eight months. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the river has broken levees in dozens of places.
For decades before that flood, Griffin said, officials repeatedly rebuilt levees – flood after flood.
“I think for a lot of people they felt, ‘We gave up the soil to build the dike and we don’t want to give up any more soil,'” he said.
But after 2019, Atchison County’s residents began looking for other options.
Last year, Atchison County’s No. 1 Levee District suffered a “setback” from the levee. The community added more than 1,000 acres of private and public land to the Missouri River, moving the levee farther away from the river’s bank and giving it room to swell during the rainy years without climbing the levees and overtaking farmers’ lands.
“Especially (after) two major floods in the last 10 years, we’re tired of seeing this,” said Griffin. “It really ruins farmland. It really messes up people’s lives. ”
Historically, the Missouri River, the longest in North America, meandered over a wide path and floodplains. The watershed is one-sixth of the United States, according to a report from American Rivers, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting rivers.
But over the decades the river has become one of the “most changed” in the nation, and in some places is severely restricted.
Because of this, American Rivers named the Missouri one of the most endangered rivers in the country in 2021.
“The lower Missouri River from Sioux City to St. Louis is artificially bounded by hundreds of kilometers of levees that have destroyed the river’s dynamic features, including side channels, slides, shallow and shallow water areas, sandbars and islands,” the report said adds that the resulting loss of habitat has resulted in several animal species being classified as endangered.
That year, American Rivers considered the Snake River in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon to be America’s most endangered river as four dams altered the river’s path and destroyed the salmon’s habitat.
Missouri is second on the list.
Problem “for a long, long time”
According to the report, dams and levees built to control river flow and prevent flooding have the opposite effect. And in many places the river is restricted to a narrower path than the law allows. Now when it floods, towers over or breaks through its levees – often repeated in the same parts of the river.
Griffin said a dam in northern Atchison County has broken in every flood since 1993.
“If the administration of the Missouri is not changed, areas along the river will continue to suffer flood damage and tax dollars will be used to rebuild the same levees repeatedly,” the report said.
The solution, the report says, lies in projects like that of Griffin and his neighbors in Atchison County. This gives the river more room to safely flood the surrounding areas without ending up on farmland, as the Missouri has repeatedly done in recent years. At the moment, the dikes are too close to the banks of the river in many places.
“This has long been a recognized problem,” said Caroline Pufalt of the Missouri River Network.
With climate change causing more intense rainy weather, Pufalt says finding ways to mitigate flooding is even more important.
The recent catastrophic flooding has severely hit Griffin’s farms and the surrounding communities. One of Griffin’s family farms in the northern part of the county is right next to a levee that broke in 2019. Even in 2020, months after the floods subsided, the land was so badly damaged that he could no longer grow corn or soybeans.
“That farm had huge ruts that were probably 40 or 50 feet deep where the river was flowing through, and then sand deposits where it looked like a large beach,” Griffin said.
That farm will be replanted this year for the first time since the 2019 floods, wiping out half of its farms’ income for the year.
Such severe flooding, he said, has made landowners along this stretch of the Missouri more amenable to setback.
But both he and the American Rivers report said that dike districts and the US Army Corps of Engineers tend to keep rebuilding dikes rather than making a more dramatic, long-term change.
Griffin said levee setback projects are expensive. A factsheet about the project created by the Conservation Agency has a budget of 61 million US dollars. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment.
Griffin hopes the project can serve as a model for other communities affected by river floods.
“I think there are areas where it would benefit people to suffer a setback,” he said, persistent problems that are there. ‘”
This story was produced by the Missouri Independent, a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization dealing with state government, politics, and politics.