One Man’s Levee is Another Man’s Loss

This week, Senator John Thune (R-SD) stated that the temporary levees now protecting Pierre, Fort Pierre, and Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, may need to be made permanent.  Thune, a long-time climate change skeptic, admitted that those three communities could face similar flood events in the future.  High, permanent levees would protect the residents of those towns from a larger, more voluminous future Missouri.Although he did not go so far as to admit climate change is a factor in the flooding, he did acknowledge that we are in a new era along the Missouri.  His acknowledgment is a step in the right direction.  We need to adapt to the likelihood that the Missouri River and its tributaries will carry more annual runoff in the years ahead than they did in the past.

Unfortunately, Thune’s tentative solution to higher annual flow volumes will protect the few rather than the many.  Levees are an inadequate solution to a much larger, more complex set of problems.  The long-term answer to flooding along the Missouri will entail fundamental changes in how we interact with the river.

In order to decrease the probability of a similar flood in the future, we first need to reach a consensus on this flood’s causes.  We need to accept that human actions and structures brought on the flooding from Montana to Missouri.  God did not bring the water down upon us, we did.  And we did it in a variety of ways.  We removed millions of acres of CRP land in the past five years throughout the Missouri Basin, which increased runoff into the river.  Since the 1950s, we built houses, factories, and powerplants in the floodplain or directly on the river’s banks, which kept the river from spreading out and naturally reducing its crest.  We erected a narrow, flood-prone barge channel south of Sioux City.  We threw carbon into the atmosphere with reckless abandon and altered the region’s climate.  We built dams and reservoirs that acted as silt traps.  Those reservoirs resulted in the formation of deltas at their headwaters.  The deltas contributed to flooding at Williston, Bismarck, Fort Yates, Pierre, Fort Pierre, and Niobrara.  We urged the Army to keep the main-stem reservoirs high in the spring to promote a reservoir fishery and the tourism industry based on it.  We legally required the Army to store water in the reservoirs in the early spring of each year to ensure a nine-foot depth in the river south of Sioux City from April 1 to December 1.  We caused the Great Flood of 2011.  Because we caused it, we can prevent a similar flood in the future.

A sampling of some of the solutions to future flooding includes: 1) allow the lower river from Ponca to the mouth into its 100-year former floodplain, which will reduce flood crests and protect towns, cities, and farms; 2) end the legal requirement of the Army to store water for the moribund navigation channel south of Sioux City, which will free up reservoir storage space in the spring for any approaching superflood; 3) pull back our constructs from the floodplain to lessen property damage in any future high water event; 4) provide monies to the CRP program to set aside millions of acres of highly erosive land, which will decrease runoff into the Missouri and its feeder streams and lower flood heights.  These four steps alone will significantly reduce the future flood threat along the Missouri.

Levees are not the answer to flooding along the Missouri.  Take for example the levee at Dakota Dunes.  It raises the water level next to it because the river cannot spread out.  That higher river then pours down on Sioux City neighborhoods or pushes out into Nebraska.  The Missouri’s waters have to go somewhere.  Keeping it out of “The Dunes” throws in into someone else’s front yard.  One man’s levee is another man’s loss.  The Army’s experience along the Mississippi River has shown that levees are not a solution to flooding.

Thune’s solution to the flooding is grossly inadequate when compared to the magnitude of the problems facing us along the river.  He needs to think large-scale and basin-wide.  His tentative levee plan will only protect a few locales.  It would secure a handful of privileged citizens living in gated communities.  It would do nothing for those without levees or the financial means and political connections to have levees built.  Thune needs to propose solutions to the flooding that benefit all of us.

This entry was posted in From the Flood Zone, Missouri River Flood 2011 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to One Man’s Levee is Another Man’s Loss

  1. S.B. Hotalling says:

    Very interesting and well written commentary though out this entire site. I personally don’t agree with you concerning climate change. I have lived long enough to see the 12-15 yr. approx. wet dry cycles of the Dakotas several times now and it is really pretty predictable. It seems to me that folks have very short memories concerning the wet times of the past as well as the grind down to the extreme dry years just three years back. I do agree with you, however, on the effects of the massive plow under of CRP as those farming aggressively pursue high grain prices/ethanol subsidies/etc. that seems unrealized. As to big picture views and actual management, what doesn’t seem to change is the incompetence and inflexibility of the Army Corp. of Engineers as they are impacted by one group or court ruling or another. River management has not been flying under the radar, it has been addressed and funded – John Cooper, the recently departed head of SD Game and Fish, reminded the Pierre/Ft. Pierre listening area that not only was a Federal bill sponsored by ND Senator Dorgan passed 3 years ago to have a comprehensive study with solutions/plan of action to address the management of the river, and that $25 million has already been spent on such and those vaunted Federal employees can’t seem to get their work done yet again. It seems to me that one can talk levees, fish vs. barges, etc. but what is the point if Federal agencies are not held accountable.

  2. Shirley Frederick says:

    Thanks, Robert, for your thoughtful response to Senator Thune’s levee-building recommendation. More levees, in my view, reinforce the mindset that (a) we humans can control the river with the right technology, (b) it’s the job of government to do that and (c) that citizens have no responsibility for their decision to build at the water’s edge. An alternative role of government would be to educate people about the causes of flooding, recommend against building in floodplains, stop providing insurance to those who do, and end subsidies that promote flooding.

    Here in Rapid City we had a major flood in 1972–it took out most of the structures along Rapid Creek and many lives were lost. In subsequent years the city created a greenway along the creek, banned creekside structures, and rebuilt the bridges to allow major water flows. The result is beautiful green public spaces–parks, gardens, ballfields, golf courses–much loved by residents. That seems to be a far better approach than building walls to hold back the flow.

    I appreciate your blog that gives us alternative ways of thinking about what is happening and where we go from here. Keep writing!

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