Guest Commentary

My view: Congress should implement plan to prevent Mississippi flood disasters

Michael D. Klingner
By Michael D. Klingner
Posted: Jul. 29, 2018 12:01 am Updated: Jul. 29, 2018 1:26 am

I would like to respond to the Other View headlined "Congress should approve flooding study" in the July 17 Herald-Whig, which was an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

It is not the time for more flood studies, but to IMPLEMENT a plan to prevent future disasters; flood disasters like the ones suffered by the upper Mississippi River valley in 1993 and 2008 will occur again if action is not taken soon.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already spent well over $30 million in "flooding studies" since 1993. Studies by other federal and state agencies have also been completed, costing millions more.

One clear conclusion from this research shows we are dealing with significantly greater annual precipitation and rainfall intensity today compared to the 1930s-1950s, when our locks and dams were built, and levees and water resources infrastructure were last improved.

After the devastation of 1993, Congress recognized the lack of adequate infrastructure on the upper Mississippi and authorized the Corps to evaluate 14 different flood scenarios ranging from taking down all 140 main-stem levees north of Cairo, Ill., to improving levees to protect against the 1993 flood elevation. They also evaluated a series of structural and nonstructural alternatives, which kept some levees purposefully lower to store water in hydraulically critical areas.

The conclusion using the Corps Risk Informed Decision Framework (RIDF) showed the need for levee systems designed to higher standards.

The RIDF methodology recognized multiple objectives including human health and safety, national economic development, regional economic development, environmental quality, as well as input from environmental, agricultural, and state and federal agencies. The Mississippi River Commission selected the top performing plan for potential implementation. This plan called for approximately 85 percent of the upper Mississippi River levees to be improved from the prevalently existing 1 in 50-year probability flood design, to the 1 in 500-year probability flood design.

Such a plan could contain a flood like 1993 without significant damages or loss of life. So, what happened?

The Mississippi River Commission issued its recommendations in 2008 for improved flood protection. This plan was further refined in 2011 to take into account the concerns of levee districts immediately north of St. Louis that had limited protection. Now, seven years later, Congress still hasn't acted. This is unacceptable. When the lower five states along the Mississippi River experienced the flood of 1927, Congress acted within one year. When New Orleans flooded because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Congress acted immediately, allocating $15 billion (without any cost-benefit analysis). It's been 25 years since the great flood of '93, and we are clearly lacking the political will in Washington, D.C., to implement a plan for the upper Mississippi River.

It is apparent that if we want to avoid future disasters, Congress needs to instruct the Corps to move forward with a version of the 2011 plan.

The Upper Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers Association recommends public-private implementation, in which the federal government provides annual payments for those levee districts that need (or elect) to store water under extreme flood conditions. Then authorize improved levee designs, similar to what exists in the lower five states, so that local levee districts and states can fund and build infrastructure projects over time.

Now is the time is for Congress to authorize and appropriate adequate regulations and funding to IMPLEMENT the Mississippi River Commission's recommendation--improve flood control.

Michael D. Klingner is president of the Upper Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers Association.