01/17/2020

Planning For Spring Waters Along The Missouri

3:54 minutes

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. These two stories by Eli Chen appeared on St. Louis Public Radio. 


Parson-Appointed Advisory Group Calls For More Flood Protection For Rural Areas

Flooding in Missouri
Gov. Mike Parson last summer appointed a group of regulators, farmers and navigation industry representatives to advise the state on how to address future floods in Missouri. Credit: St Louis Public Radio/ Winfield Foley fire protection district

An advisory group Missouri Governor Mike Parson appointed to study ways to address flooding has released a report that recommends state and federal agencies repair and strengthen levees, especially in rural areas hit severely by prolonged flooding this year.

Record flooding in 2019 overtopped and breached dozens of levees along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, causing damage to many farms and communities. Some parts of western Missouri experienced flooding for as long as seven months.

Parson signed an executive order in July to create a Flood Recovery Advisory Working Group to recommend how to improve flood recovery and the state’s levee system.

Rebuilding in flood-prone areas has led to repeated damage in the same areas, said Dru Buntin, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

“What the group has tried to look at is based on what we’ve seen in these large floods, whether it’s 2011, 1993 or this past year. Where are we seeing those problem areas?” Buntin said.

The 24-member advisory group includes officials from state agencies, primarily the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Other members represented levee districts, agriculture groups and the navigation industry.

The report released Tuesday finds that state and federal agencies should support levee district projects aimed at reducing constriction of the river during floods. It advocates that state and federal governments support, in particular, Atchison County’s efforts in northwest Missouri to move levees farther back from the Missouri River.

The advisory group of regulators and representatives from the navigation and agriculture industry recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers should repair breached levees to help ease the costs for farmers paying crop insurance. Members also suggested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency extend the dates for determining premium rates on the 2020 growing season.

The report largely focused on structural solutions, such as levee repairs. However, it did suggest that officials consider alternative flood-control strategies, such as buying frequently flooded properties. Environmental groups have also advocated for non-structural solutions, such as restoring wetlands to reconnect rivers to the floodplain.

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment and other environmental organizations have complained that the working group does not include scientists or someone to provide a conservation perspective.

The advisory group plans to release a final report in late May.

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Environmentalists Say Missouri Flood Advisory Group’s Recommendations Fall Short

An advisory group’s recommendations to Missouri Governor Mike Parson that state and federal agencies largely focus on repairing and strengthening levees will not do enough to protect communities from floods, environmentalists say.

Parson created the Flood Recovery Advisory Working Group last summer after record flooding along the state’s major rivers caused widespread damage to many Missouri communities. The group mostly consists of regulators, levee district representatives and members of agriculture associations.

There are no scientists and conservationists to acknowledge that climate change will worsen floods and promote long-term solutions to prevent flood damage, said Maisah Khan, water policy director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

Flooding in Missouri
Flooding in rural Missouri. Credit: Red Cross of Missouri and Arkansas

“Yes, we need to fix the levees, we need to get these folks out of this bad situation right now. We need to do the recovery piece, but we need to be focused on resiliency just as much,” Khan said. “It should be 50-50. With this set of recommendations, it’s like 90-10.”

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment and other environmental groups have repeatedly argued that levees will fail eventually. Restoring wetlands and other tactics that allow rivers to flow freely would do more to protect Missouri communities from floods, Khan said.

A few parts of the report recommended using alternative flood-control strategies, such as buying frequently flooded properties. It also recommended supporting efforts in Atchison County to move levees away from the Missouri River.

However, the report still encourages a pattern of building up levees that constrict rivers and asking for government aid when floods destroy property, said Bob Criss, a retired Washington University geology professor.

“All this document is, is trying to focus funding and authority to the ag interests. The people who caused the problem are demanding more funds from the rest of us,” Criss said.

The advisory group also presented some misleading information about flooding in its report, he added.

“They even claimed, incredibly, that urban flood problems aren’t as bad as rural flooding, which is just preposterous,” Criss said. “We have enormous flash-flood problems in all of our urban areas.”

The advisory group plans to produce a final version of its recommendations by late May. Khan wants to see the group provide opportunities for the general public to give feedback on the report and more information on how they suggest putting the recommendations into action.

“I think a lot of these recommendations are pretty vague and broad. The devil is going to be in the details on how they are implemented,” she said.

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Segment Guests

Eli Chen

Eli Chen is a science and environment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and a former contributing producer for Science Friday.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.

[INTRO]

Local science stories of national significance. The spring is of course, still a way off. I’m waiting for spring to get here. But along the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, communities are still recovering from last year’s flooding and looking ahead to what the weather might bring this year. Among the plans– well, rebuild the levees. Good idea? Joining me now to talk about that and other ways Missouri communities are hoping to reduce the impact of flooding is Eli Chen, science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Welcome back, Eli.

ELI CHEN: Hey, Ira. How’s it going?

IRA FLATOW: The 2019 flood season, it was unusually bad, right?

ELI CHEN: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Have communities recovered yet from it?

ELI CHEN: Well, it depends on what area you’re talking about. There were communities hit pretty hard near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers– so the St. Charles area in Missouri, and the Illinois towns of Grafton and Alton. And flooding basically started early spring, and waters didn’t recede until well into summer. So recovery took well into the fall. But farmers in Northwest Missouri had to deal with high waters for an even longer stretch of time, actually. The Army Corps of Engineers District for Kansas City declared the 2019 flood officially over just a month ago.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. But what are they talking about– building levees now, to maybe hold it back for any more flooding?

ELI CHEN: Yeah. The state is trying to work on a plan for flood recovery. Our Governor, Mike Parson, last summer had passed an advisory group to figure out how to address this issue. And they released this long list of recommendations a few weeks ago that include things like the setback levees that you talked about, along with you know studying the impacts to agriculture, revising the crop insurance program, and fixing the levees that got damaged. So one of the items mentioned trying to support farmers in Northwest Missouri who want to set their levees back away from the Missouri River. And that would allow the river more room to roam instead of constricting it, which can make flooding worse.

IRA FLATOW: That’s sort of an inland version of what people are doing on the coast. They’re moving away from the ocean. This is moving away from the river.

ELI CHEN: Yeah. I think that a lot of environmental groups are talking about resilience. That’s something that’s really important.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So what’s going to happen to these plans? How far along are we from getting the new levees? Or what’s going on about implementing these ideas?

ELI CHEN: So that’s yet to be seen. This list so far is just a rough draft, and we’re expecting to see a full report at the end of May. But I have no idea what that’s going to look like. I should mention, though, that the environmental groups were excluded from that governor’s advisory group, as well as academic scientists. And a lot of them want to see more things like wetland restoration. They want to see more discussion about how climate change will bring heavier rains to the region, and how that will impact flooding.

IRA FLATOW: Taking the scientists out of government. Where have I heard that before? So should people be buying flood insurance? Can they get flood insurance?

ELI CHEN: Yeah. So right now, FEMA and the state emergency agencies definitely recommend getting it. One of the reasons for that is, if your home gets damaged in a flood, homeowner’s insurance won’t cover it. And even if the president grants your governor’s request to declare where you live as a disaster area, it’s not a guarantee that FEMA will provide aid. And that happened to Illinois residents last year. They were denied financial assistance, and that made quite a lot of people unhappy.

IRA FLATOW: You like to keep track of this and check back in with us when we know what’s going on, OK?

ELI CHEN: Yeah, definitely.

IRA FLATOW: Eli Chen, science reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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