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How one Iowa town made peace with the Mississippi River

Why We Wrote This

River communities often struggle to keep surging floodwaters from destroying property. In Davenport, Iowa, however, residents have instead learned to live with the ebbs and flows of the Mississippi.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Modern Woodmen Park stands along the Mississippi River. During flood events, the baseball stadium can become its own island.

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Life on the Mississippi River can be a mixed blessing. The river has been a vital resource for industry since the first Americans settled along its banks. But the Mississippi has also been a source of anguish, as its waters have repeatedly infiltrated waterfront communities. After the famous flood of 1965 inundated the Upper Mississippi River basin causing $160 million (nearly $1.3 trillion in 2018 dollars) in damages, cities along the river began walling up their communities with the help of federal funds. But Davenport, Iowa, has taken a decidedly different tack. Eschewing levies and flood walls entirely, city planners have designed downtown Davenport to be floodable, lining the city’s nine miles of riverfront with parks, bike trails, and parking lots. As a result, the residents of Davenport have learned to live with the river rather than fighting to control it. “Working with Mother Nature is better than working against Mother Nature,” says former Davenport mayor, Bill Gluba. “At least it has worked for us.”

The Fourth of July is an important day for the Quad Cities River Bandits. Thousands of fans flock to Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, Iowa, to cheer on the home team and watch fireworks.

But the big summer game was a bit different in 2014, says Andrew Chesser, the Bandits’ general manager, when the baseball stadium was transformed into an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. Fans had to ford the floodwaters on a portable bridge to reach the stadium.

“The ballpark was totally surrounded,” says Mr. Chesser. “But it doesn’t inhibit us from operating whatsoever.... It’s just become part of life here.”

Davenport is the only major city on the upper Mississippi River, between the headwaters in Bemidji, Minn., and St. Louis, without levees or a flood wall to hold back the river. Instead of building a barrier between the river and nearby homes and businesses, Davenport designed its downtown to be floodable, lining the city’s nine miles of riverfront with parks, bike trails, parking lots, and a very wet baseball stadium.

As cities around the United States – and the world – deal with more frequent and more powerful flooding as a result of climate change, the town of Davenport offers an adaptive approach to flood plain management. Rather than fighting to control the river, the residents of Davenport have learned to live with it.

“Some of the traditional ways of fortifying rivers – hardened shorelines and engineering solutions – have tons of repercussions that we don’t always take into account,” says Samuel Muñoz, an assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at Northeastern University in Boston.

“[Davenport] is an example of one city taking an alternative approach,” says Professor Muñoz. “If more cities and communities along the Mississippi, and other rivers, took alternative approaches it could have a big effect on aggregate.”

SOURCE: Scott County, Iowa; FEMA
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Local leadership says this approach has come with some economic benefits: tourists are attracted to the city’s views and building a wall would be expensive, potentially costing more than current flood clean-ups. And many Davenport residents say it’s important to accept flooding as a part of the city’s history and a way of life along the river.

“When the river comes up, and that happens every year now, we let it take its own course. There is nothing really in there that could be damaged,” says former Davenport mayor, Bill Gluba. “Working with Mother Nature is better than working against Mother Nature.... At least it has worked for us.”

Going with the flow

After the famous flood of 1965 inundated the Upper Mississippi River basin causing $160 million (nearly $1.3 billion in 2018 dollars) in damages, cities along the river began walling up their communities with the help of federal funds. Local Davenport resident Mary Ellen Chamberlin worried that her town could be next.

So Ms. Chamberlin took a week of vacation to drive up and down the Mississippi to inspect the new metal barricades and grass-covered levees sprouting up between communities and the river. She became “repulsed” by the idea of a permanent barrier in Davenport. She would no longer be able to walk along the river, or put her feet in its cool, milk chocolate-colored waters.

“I was born five blocks from the river,” says Chamberlin. “It bothered me that I wouldn’t see it anymore. So I made it my own effort.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mary Ellen Chamberlain led the original push to keep Davenport levee-free after the flood of 1965, taking her case all the way to then-President Jimmy Carter.

Chamberlin, who was working as a congressional aide at the time, took the issue to her local politicians and, eventually, to then-President Jimmy Carter, who eliminated funding for a wall in Davenport at her request. Since then, a long line of mayors dedicated to preserving the riverfront have assumed that mantle.

“The river is always an issue during the election process,” says Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch, who was elected in 2016. “Well before my term in office, the community embraced the river. It’s an important part of our identity.”

Locals are occasionally frustrated with Davenport’s approach, but Mr. Gluba, Chamberlin, and Mayor Klipsch can’t think of one Davenport resident who is vocal about wanting a wall. As the Bandit’s Mr. Chesser puts it, living with floods is now a part of Davenport’s nature.

“Davenport still has the pressure, especially after a big flood, but the politicians have had the backbone over the years to resist that drumbeat,” says Nicholas Pinter, associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

Davenport’s approach has drawn the attention of other cities in the United States and abroad. As co-chair of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, Klipsch was asked to speak at a United Nations conference on water in Bonn, Germany.

For communities that have already invested in levees and flood walls, however, Davenport’s lead may be difficult to follow. Taking down that infrastructure is costly, and many cities have established buildings that would be flooded without that protection.

“The more likely scenario is that the few remaining places without a levee may be more likely to resist pressure [to build one],” says Dr. Pinter, as cities would likely appreciate alternatives. “If you’ve been to Hannibal, the flood walls and levees really alter the connection to the river.”

A tale of two cities

More than 160 miles south, Hannibal, Mo., is only one-fifth the size of Davenport. But Hannibal, the birthplace of Mark Twain, shares a similar small, river-town feel.

But there is a big difference between the two cities. In Hannibal, 34-foot-high levees stand between the town and the river, like an inverted medieval moat. By the time it reaches Hannibal, the Mississippi is running fast and more than half a mile wide, but locals strolling down the city’s main street can’t see the river.

Not only do levees visually block the river, but they also make flooding worse. When the river swells, either from heavy rain or snowmelt, the river naturally wants to expand wider across flood plains. Instead, levees constrict the water to a narrow passage, making the water rise higher and move faster as it flows downstream.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

That effect has stoked animosity between communities and led to so-called levee wars, in which one community will illegally increase levee heights  so the water crests over another town’s smaller levee. Hannibal has been in its own levee war with the Sny Island Levee Drainage District across the river in Illinois, which has built up its levees to an unauthorized height.

“We can’t just continue to wall the river with levees and think that’s going to solve a problem,” says Mark Harvey, standing in front of the grassy walls of the levee in Hannibal. Mr. Harvey is chair of Neighbors of the Mississippi River, a group that campaigns for equitable flood mitigation to prevent levee war losers.

“You might solve your problem short term, but long term you could create a negative impact for generations to come,” says Harvey, adding that he appreciates Davenport’s respect for its neighbors. “If the residents believe that’s fair and equitable to them, that’s an admirable decision.”

But Davenport’s approach requires more work, say municipal employees. When the river crest reaches 13 to 15 feet, which happens two to four times a year, Davenport Public Works closes the roads closest to the water and sets up water pumps. And when the river crests above 17 feet, temporary barriers are deployed throughout town.

“It’s a lot of last minute response, a lot of overtime. It’s exhausting for our crews,” says Public Works director Nicole Gleason. A few years ago, for example, Davenport had a flood that took weeks to recede, and then shortly after employees took down all of the portable barriers and pumps, the area flooded again.

“And then we get criticized for not doing other work like road work,” says Ms. Gleason. “When we have a flood, we delay other critical services. We press a pause button on everything that’s scheduled.”

But even if Public Works is slow to repair a road, the Davenport community realizes what it has gained with the public green space. Residents enjoy frequent citywide events, from festivals and concerts on the waterfront to an annual Father’s Day bike ride.

For residents like Chesser, the number of beautiful days at the river’s edge more than make up for the days when flooding spreads into the city. “I can’t complain if five days a year Mother Nature decides to throw us a curveball,” he says.

This story was made possible in part by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

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