Better buffer than levees

Water management and retreat from flood plains make more sense and cost less.

This week more than $2.3 million in government disaster assistance grants was approved for Illinois residents affected by the flooding. Rather than continue spending massive amounts of government money on haphazard cleanup efforts after disasters that hit the Midwest and Louisiana, let's take some realistic measures.

One immediate response to the horrible Midwest flooding has been the pronouncement that the Army Corps of Engineers must build bigger and higher levees. But as The Economist magazine recently observed with regard to Britain, there are several problems with that approach.

Urbanization has reduced the ability of land to absorb rainfall that in past centuries remained stored "locally." Today that water has no place to go but into storm sewers, creeks, and then heavily levied rivers.

Climate change experts predict new weather patterns that include droughts in some places, heavier rainfall in other areas, and decades of much more severe tropical storm patterns along the Gulf and East Coast. We know that the levees in New Orleans did not hold. Recent reports indicate that the rebuilt levees today would not even hold with a Category 2 hurricane. That means the levee of the future would have to be a "superlevee" – more elaborate than anything we have ever built.

Those bigger and "better" levees come with financial and social costs – someone downstream will inevitably suffer the consequences. We can't control nature, and when we try, we selectively benefit certain parcels of land and communities.

Like squeezing a balloon, though, the floods will pop out from levees – no matter how big they are – through the next weak spot. Sandbags are just not a policy.

So, what to do?

As a compassionate society, we need to help communities and affected citizens get back on their feet. But after that, managing the collection of water is the only fiscally sound policy to pursue going forward.

We don't have the budgets to continually increase levee heights. The billions of dollars spent on some levees would be much better invested buying out landowners whose property is worth less than the cost of the defenses it would take to save their land.

American communities and policymakers at all levels can prohibit new construction in flood plains. Let's discontinue flood insurance. Let's discontinue federal and state bailouts that make it worth taking the risk of building in dubious places.

We should concentrate greater resources on protecting assets that cannot realistically be purchased or moved. This would strengthen areas that we have no choice but to protect from flooding.

We need to integrate levee protection so that it is not a "patchwork" of uncoordinated structures built by different agencies and jurisdictions. The 272-page report prepared after the 1993 floods in Iowa pointed this out, and for good reason.

Local, federal, and state governments should develop an integrated strategic flooding plan that deliberately designates "safety valves" along US rivers and tributaries prone to extreme flooding. By creating places where water can flow all the way up and down waterways and coastal areas with minimal damage, it relieves flood pressure downstream from densely populated communities. Just like a valve on pressure cookers, built in safety valves would be a place where rivers could blow out with less damage.

Resistance to this "managed retreat" approach will be fierce from landowners, developers, and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Because, without clear compensation, they will see a threat to their interests.

However, evidence points to this new management system as sound, doable, and realistic.

With rising healthcare costs, rusting bridges, faltering schools, and other needs, local, state, and federal governments will not have the tax revenue to undertake an huge overhaul of man-made armor such as dams and superlevees throughout the country.

Instead, total coordination is our best chance at preventing the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Steffen Schmidt is a professor of political science at Iowa State University. He researches and lectures on coastal policy at the Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Fla.

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