Major Changes in Flood Control Advanced in Key Federal Study

CONSIDER it the Noah's Ark of federal reports. But instead of animals entering two-by-two, hundreds of local jurisdictions will have to climb aboard the ``ark'' together if repeats of the great Mississippi flood of `93 are to be avoided in future years.

This study, released by the United States Interagency Flood Plain Management Review Committee recently, recommends much less reliance on levees to control flood waters - a practice dominating flood control for 60 years. The long-range answer, says the report, lies mostly upriver where flood waters form and where land use determines the extent of water run-off.

Moving homes and towns out of flood-plain areas should continue, the report says. An estimated $15 billion to $20 billion worth of damage was done in the Midwest last summer by the most devastating flood in US history.

``What is perhaps revolutionary about this report,'' says Shannon Cunniff, assistant executive director of the report, ``is that we spell out how to manage the whole flood-plain system and treat it as a system using knowledge that has been around since 1965. We're saying, let's bring some of the nonstructural approaches, like planning and collaborative watershed management, to the forefront and use them as coequal to the engineering solution.''

The report was prepared for the President's Flood Plain Task Force by representatives from the US Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Agency, US Department of the Interior, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Department of Agriculture.

``It's all a question of how society moves water,'' says Scott Faber of American Rivers, an environmental group in Washington, D.C., ``and now we move it as fast as we can. We drain our farm lands and turn our tributaries into concrete channels. The report is saying that the [current] philosophy of water removal is fundamentally flawed. We should be managing watersheds so that water trickles off instead of runs off.''

To discourage the fragmentation and short-sightedness of previous efforts, the report recommends that specific federal agencies implement changes that are collaborative and integrated with local jurisdictions.

``Our ideal flood plain of the 21st century,'' Ms. Cunniff says, ``is to have some levees for a town, but with vulnerable populations moved out of the plain, and then use upland watershed treatment. This includes things like conservation reserves of farmland with no-tillage agriculture, and wetlands that act as sponges to absorb water and then slowly release it.''

The report, and other studies, indicate that a combination of methods in agricultural areas can be used along rivers to reduce runoff and sedimentation of streams that clog channels and reservoirs. These include: maintaining trees and vegetative cover, terracing, slope stabilization, contour plowing for farms, strip farming (alternating blocks of different crops), and building structures to retain or redirect runoff.

Many environmentalists, and a key 1992 report for the Interagency Flood Plain Management Task Force, are critical that the flood-control efforts of thousands of jurisdictions along America's rivers and flood plains are uncoordinated. The 1992 report concluded that overall federal flood-plain management ``had inconsistencies of purpose and procedure [with] overlaps, gaps, and conflicts'' stemming from ``differing attitudes and expectations about the ultimate ... commitment of resources to respond to flood problems, and these are not likely to be readily resolved.''

MONTANA Sen. Max Baucus (D), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, applauded the recommendations of the new report and said, ``It's time to start giving [rivers] room to flow more naturally, and not automatically choose structural solutions.... '' He promised to introduce such recommendations in Congress.

One of the best models for a coordinated effort for river restoration and control may be the Anacostia River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, that flows through Washington, D.C. With congressional approval there is an ``Anacostia blueprint'' that identifies some 400 restoration projects for the river, including 13 storm-water restoration projects by the US Army Corps of Engineers and social and recreational benefits.

``The projects will have a multiplier effect,'' Mr. Faber says, ``cleaning water while the river moves downstream and also storing and slowly conveying water with a flood-control purpose while providing habitat for fish and wildlife.''

Many improvements for achieving flood control can be done administratively between jurisdictions, the interagency report states.

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