QUINCY -- With floodwaters still rolling over Bob Bangert Park in Quincy, a coalition of environmental groups have given a portion of the Mississippi River a dubious distinction.
Last week, American Rivers released its annual list of the USA's top 10 "most endangered" rivers, and the upper Mississippi River valley, which includes communities such as Quincy and others in the region, was listed as the third most endangered river. Joining with the American Rivers organization in releasing the report were the Champaign-based Prairie Rivers Network organization, the Great River Habitat Alliance in St. Louis, Mo., and others.
According to the report, the river could be selected on one of the following criteria: "a major decision that the public can influence in the coming year on a proposed action; the significance of the river to human and natural communities, or the magnitude of the threat to the river and associated communities, especially in the light of a changing climate."
Prairie Rivers Network Interim Director Elliot Brinkman said the conditions of the Mississippi River fit all three criteria.
"First, we are calling on members of the public to communicate with state and federal officials about their concerns about how levees are built," Brinkman said. "My answer to the second question is that there is no doubt that the Upper Mississippi River really is a significant cultural and natural resource. It is a resource, not just for the region, but for the entire nation. My answer to the third is that there is a threat to the river and to communities on the river because of how levees are being built above authorized heights."
According to the report, more than 80 miles of levees in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois are built higher than the authorized heights set by various governmental agencies. These levees have been constructed by various levee and drainage districts, who have "acted outside of the law," the report claims.
Brinkman said an investigation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2017 revealed various levee districts had built levees 2 to 4 feet higher than allowed.
"It is difficult to explain to a layperson because 2 to 4 feet doesn't sound like a lot, but essentially that extra height is pushing a lot of water off onto someone else who has lower levees," Brinkman said.
According to Great River Habitat Alliance Executive Director David Stokes, few levee districts want to be the one receiving the flood waters, so instead they continually push their levees to new heights. He later went on to describe it as unique "arms race between the levee districts."
"The proliferation of higher levees is bound to make the next flood worse," Stokes said. "Normally with an arms race you have the hope for peace, like the arms race with the Soviet Union eventually resulted in peace. With an arms race with levees, there is no such hope because we know there will be another flood and it will be worse."
Stokes acknowledged that it will likely be difficult to stop this "arms race."
Eileen Shader, who works as the Director of River Restoration for American Rivers, said her organization's hope is that by publishing its annual report, property owners, elected officials, community leaders, and others will agree to discuss "a longterm vision for the river" that will be followed.
The report calls on the Army Corps, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state emergency management organizations in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri to "take corrective action to stop and resolve these levee violations."
In addition, the report also calls for the government to develop "effective flood risk management strategies for urban and rural communities that avoid the environmental damage and increased risks created by levees and floodwalls."
Officials from all three organizations suggested "nature-based" solutions, such as floodplain restoration and levee setbacks.
In the meantime, Stokes said he hopes the public will read the report, which is available online, and reach out to their respective Congressional leaders.
"As I've met with people to discuss these issues, the thing that I am struck with is that the average person gets it," Stokes said. "They understand that floodplain development is bad, that higher levees are going to make flooding worse, and that flooding is going to become more severe."