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Sierra Magazine
Unnatural Disasters

We can't stop rivers from flooding. But we can stop making the floods worse.

by Bob Schildgen

The Deluge is ancient, universal, inevitable. Stories of a catastrophic flood were told 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, and have been recited from desert to rainforest, from the Natives of Australia to the Maya in Central America. In many of these myths, the flood is a punishment for the sins of humanity.

What sins are we suffering for now? Floods are so frequent and intense that it seems we've returned to the drenched mythic dreamtime. The trouble begins with a deep snow cover in the mountains, a quick spring thaw on the prairie, a sudden downpour, a relentless gray month of steady rain. As waters rise, people in the floodplain anxiously listen to weather reports and upstream flood measurements, and watch the muddy torrents on the news. Then comes the desperate sandbagging, pumping, bulldozing, emergency levee building. Families flee to high ground before roads and bridges wash out. Homes, farms, and businesses are ruined, submerged or ripped away in a rush of water and mud.

The human cost can be read on the faces of those huddled in makeshift shelters and school gyms, and heard in their dazed accounts of loved ones who disappeared under the waves. Our sense of what is important changes: in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a police officer boats to his ruined house, and steps out of the water into his second-story window to save his wife's wedding dress. There is heroism and sacrifice and community solidarity. One after another, survivors tell how the sundering flood made them closer than before.

Then the politicians arrive by boat and helicopter, looking grave and rugged in their flannel shirts and hunting caps and outdoor gear. The president declares a disaster, and another relief effort begins.

We call these disasters "natural" and even "acts of God." True, rivers always have and always will overflow their banks. But there is increasing evidence that human hands are roiling the already angry waters; we have forgotten the ancient lesson that floods are the price we pay for our own actions.

In an attempt to save ourselves, we build not arks, but massive dams and levees that enable us to live and farm on the lands where the water belongs. This reflexive reliance on technical fixes is notorious for ruining vital natural ecosystems. Dams obliterate river valleys, turning them into artificial lakes, while levees cut off rivers from riparian habitat. Moreover, these remedies can defeat their purpose. A growing number of flood watchers warn that excessive dependence on structures actually aggravates floods, as does our destruction of water-storing wetlands and reckless development of floodplains. We spend billions, first to prevent floods and then to recover from them, but much of that money is merely subsidizing disaster.

THE U.S. GOVERNMENT DOES more to promote floods than any other entity. More than 40 separate federal programs and agencies, governing everything from highway construction to farm export policy, encourage building and farming on floodplains and wetlands. In 1996 alone, according to an analysis by Sierra Club Midwest representative Brett Hulsey and the National Wildlife Federation's David Conrad, over $7 billion was poured into ten programs that aggravate flooding. "So much subsidy goes into the development of floodplains that there's no incentive to stay out," says Nancy Philippi, vice president of the Wetlands Initiative in Chicago.

Between 1960 and 1985, the federal government spent $38 billion on flood control, yet average annual flood damage-adjusted for inflation-continued to increase, more than doubling. Since 1990, damages have averaged more than $5 billion a year. When rains pounded the Upper Mississippi watershed for days on end in the spring of 1993, the cost was $6.5 billion. When a "Pineapple Express" from the subtropical Pacific dumped heavy rains on California and brought on the New Year's Flood of 1997, rivers swelled and broke or overtopped many stretches of California's thousands of miles of levees-just as they had in the Midwest-at an estimated cost of $1.7 billion. When the Red River, which flows up through the prairie between North Dakota and Minnesota, flooded later that year, another $3 billion in damages was added.

The human toll is also staggering. More than 500 people have been killed since 1993 in the Great Midwest Flood and the many floods that followed, a loss that would have been far higher without modern weather forecasting and communications to spread the word to sandbag or flee.

THE TRADITIONAL DEFENSE against floods is to treat them as a plumbing problem. Dams are built to contain the water, and levees-mounds of earth, riprap, or concrete along the banks of the river-seek to confine it. When another 100-year flood comes ahead of schedule and washes these structures away, they are rebuilt bigger and stronger.

The bulk of the $4 billion annual budget of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency primarily responsible for flood control, goes to building and maintaining waterworks. The Corps boasts that its dams and 8,500 miles of levees have saved some $387 billion in damages since 1928. No similar assessment exists of the damages wrought in areas where Corps projects encouraged development that was later inundated.

The barriers to change may be as much a matter of political culture as of the Corps' long tradition of engineering. Congress is a significant obstacle, says Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of Floodplain Managers. "They still believe all their constituents want structural solutions, because the structural cadre has been lobbying for a hundred years. Other people don't get heard from." In addition, Larson notes, there's the congressional ego factor: "Dams are 'plaqueable.' The plaque says, 'that's the senator's dam.' " Less intrusive approaches tend not to be monumental, and thus not so politically attractive.

Flood management is complicated by the fact that federal agencies often work at cross-purposes. For example, while the Department of Agriculture's Wetland Reserve Program is buying up marginal cropland and restoring it as wetlands, the Corps is issuing permits that allow drainage and destruction of wetlands at the rate of 70,000 acres a year. When government-built dams and levees fail, emergency relief and federal flood insurance encourage rebuilding in the same locations. "The federal government tries to adjust nature to us, rather than letting us adjust to nature," says Larson. "It does too good a job bailing people out. If a community knows it can get a hundred percent aid to rebuild, there's no incentive for moving out." Inappropriate development in flood-prone areas occurs, he adds, because "too many city councils say, 'if we don't let them build, they'll go someplace else.' I don't blame the developers as much as city officials."

An indication of confusion as murky as the Missouri River itself comes from House Majority Leader Dick Armey. "Don't move away-rebuild," he exhorted the waterlogged folks of Grand Forks. "If I were sitting here today making that decision I'd come back." Armey's advice runs directly counter to the policies of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has been trying to break the traditional flood-and-rebuild cycle by moving property out of harm's way and discouraging reckless development.

In recent years, the Corps has begun, ever so slowly, to seriously consider nonstructural approaches to flood control. It is even attempting to undo some of its past environmental damage in the Everglades and around the upper Snake River in Wyoming, where it is removing levees to let water flow into old channels.

Nevertheless, the engineers still rule. In California, failed levees are being rebuilt, raised, and hardened-just as they are being built along the Mississippi-while other strategies are largely neglected. "Two years ago the water started to recede in California," says Jeffrey Mount, chair of the geology department at the University of California at Davis. "The reality is that despite thousands of hours of work, we're no further along than two years ago, and in many ways worse off. We remain addicted to levees as the first line of defense."

Mount advocates getting rid of some levees and moving others farther away from riverbanks, giving the river room to slow down and flow through natural paths, to loaf in sloughs and swamps and spill over into farmlands that can tolerate a certain amount of flooding. This approach would not only curb further development in these areas but also help revive much-abused riparian areas.

Even when they stand firm, levees can actually cause or exacerbate floods. Constricting and intensifying the river's flow, they can channel a flood downstream, making one community's salvation another's trauma. Conversely, a breach in upstream levees can be a blessing for those downstream. During the New Year's Flood in California, says Mount, "if there had not been breaks at Olivehurst on the Feather River, it may well have flooded Sacramento."

Like California's capital, St. Louis may have been spared enormous damage in 1993, when the Mississippi and its tributaries topped or broke more than 1,000 upstream levees, causing vast inundations. Even so, the flood still crested in St. Louis at over 47 feet, six feet above its previous record. No one knows how much greater the destruction might have been had the levees held.

Neither the Mississippi and its tributaries' thousands of miles of levees and dozens of huge dams nor California's 6,000 miles of levees and more than 1,400 dams can reasonably be expected to do the entire job of flood control. "We cannot prevent floods," Mount warned in congressional testimony after the California flood. "The hard lesson learned is that despite our seemingly Herculean engineering efforts, floods are going to happen."

NOTHING DEMONSTRATES MORE vividly than a river the degree to which one's own backyard is linked to the ecosystem. The Mississippi watershed, for example, drains more than one-third of the United States. A raindrop falling in Montana can end up in the Gulf of Mexico. Its destiny is determined not just by weather and the lay of the land, but by myriad human actions: agricultural tilling and drainage, suburban development, deforestation, and the decisions of hundreds of local, state, and federal agencies as well as thousands of private landowners.

Runoff from a flooded cornfield in Minnesota can end up killing fish off the coast of Louisiana, because fertilizers washed downriver promote the growth of algae that deprives the water of oxygen. (After the 1993 Mississippi flood, the zone of oxygen-depleted waters off the Louisiana coast doubled to almost 7,000 square miles.) That cornfield in the floodplain might have been planted because of agricultural subsidies, a drought in Russia, or a growing demand for bacon-burgers. A case can be made that Ronald McDonald, not nature or an angry God, is the true Lord of the Floods.

Even the amount of rain falling on the field may be tied to human activity. The recent El Niņo weather system, with its increased precipitation and more intense storms, has been linked to global warming (see "The Invisible Hand" in the May/June 1998 issue). Thus the sport utility vehicle that gets washed away in the flash flood may have helped bring about its own destruction.

A turning point in flood control came in the wake of the 1993 flood when Corps General Gerald Galloway bucked tradition and called for more emphasis on nonstructural methods, including the acquisition and restoration of wetlands and riparian habitat, stricter limits on development in floodplains, and even a farm policy that discourages the conversion of wetlands to cropland.

Wetlands can store excess water like a sponge, and in some cases may be more efficient than manmade reservoirs. Depending on the soil type, they can contain 1 million to 1.5 million gallons of water per acre, and can alleviate flooding, though no one really knows to what extent.

Wetland destruction, however, clearly aggravates flooding, even on a local scale. Doris Wilson, an elementary school teacher from Louisville, explained in congressional testimony how her home flooded on March 1, 1997, because a nearby wetland had been drained by a developer. "I realize we had a lot of rain that day," she said. "However, the developer created the situation that made the flood worse."

What happened in Wilson's yard may be a miniature version of what occurs in an entire watershed. Almost 120 million acres of U.S. wetlands have been destroyed for agriculture and development, more than half of what existed prior to European conquest. California, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois have allowed over 85 percent of their wetlands to be destroyed. Motorists rolling along midwestern highways through the vast stretches of corn and soybean fields don't realize that they're driving over the grave of a wetland, sometimes with miles of underground pipes draining off the water to prevent it from returning.

Some geologists and soil scientists consider it more than coincidence that the Red River flood occurred in an area where there has been large-scale drainage of wetlands. "Water retention is significantly less than ten, twenty, or thirty years ago," says Dexter Perkins, a geology professor at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. "Seventy-five percent of the wetlands in the Red River basin have been drained. In several counties it's ninety-nine percent."

While scientists agree that wetlands can reduce flooding in upland areas, there is disagreement on whether they can prevent the flood peaks that are the major cause of damage. Donald Hey, a hydrologist with the Wetlands Initiative, contends that the excess water that poured through St. Louis in 1993 would have covered slightly more than 13 million acres-half the amount of wetlands lost in the Upper Mississippi region since 1780, but only 3 percent of the land in that area. Hey argues that "by strategically placing at least thirteen million acres of wetlands on hydric soils in the basin, we can solve the basin's flooding problems in an ecologically sound manner." The Corps' hydraulic engineers sharply dispute this analysis, saying that it would have been physically impossible for the wetlands to have contained the 1993 flood. Even if this is so, argues Perkins, the prudent course is to regard wetlands as insurance against floods, protecting and restoring what we can.

The idea that swamps and bottomlands can tame a torrent is hardly new. In 1849, Louisiana Senator Solomon Downs testified on the Swamp Act, which transferred federally owned wetlands to the states and opened them up to development. "It is reasonable to suppose that the whole country is now more rapidly and thoroughly drained into the Mississippi than when in a state of nature," Downs said. "Then, no doubt, a great quantity of water was collected in pools and swamps, and there remained until carried off by gradual evaporation." The issue of flood control on the river was hotly debated for years after the Swamp Act began to bring massive new settlement on the floodplains, with one camp in favor of levees and the other for backing off from the river. The levee advocates won out, but the most massive federal projects on the Mississippi were not undertaken until after the flood of 1927. Gilbert F. White, generally acknowledged as the nation's foremost authority on floods, was already making a case for nonstructural methods in the 1930s, when he served as an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration.

ONCE THE WATERS RECEDE, the debris has been hauled away (100 tons a day in Grand Forks in 1997), and rebuilding begins, people tend to leave flood control to community leaders and the federal government. Making public policy is tedious enough in good times, let alone when a family is confronted with a houseful of mud, molding wallboard, and wrecked appliances. "Our flood-memory half-life is remarkably short," says Galloway. One victim of the Red River flood told Minnesota Public Radio that her home was in the 500-year floodplain, "so I figure I won't see another flood like this 'cause I won't live that long."

More and more Americans are living in harm's way: FEMA has identified 10 million households and businesses with property valued at a trillion dollars on some 150,000 square miles in flood-prone areas. Cities and towns grew up on rivers because of the need for inland water transport, and once established they cannot very well pack up and move. But ceasing to build on the most vulnerable areas would clearly reduce the damage and loss of life. And while the rich alluvial soil of floodplains makes fine farmland, not every acre has to be cultivated right to the edge of a river.

Increasingly, communities are opting out of the flood-and-rebuild cycle. After a 1972 flood killed 238 people and caused $500 million in damages, Rapid City, South Dakota, used federal funds to buy 1,400 pieces of property and create a greenway. After the town of Valmeyer, Illinois, was flooded in 1993, 600 residents used $35 million in state and federal aid to move to higher ground. In St. Charles County, Missouri, a similar relocation after the 1993 flood meant that when the river flooded again in 1995, damage and the cost of disaster relief was a fraction of the previous total.

Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, has avoided disaster by moving its business district away from the Kickapoo River and creating a new town center. And in Napa, California, where flooding costs have averaged $15 million a year since 1960, citizens rejected a plan by the Army Corps to dredge the Napa River and build more levees. Instead, a broad coalition campaigning on the slogan "a living river" mustered the necessary two-thirds vote last year to restore 600 acres of marshland, move levees back from the river, and relocate more than 60 structures off the floodplain.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, has gone from almost total reliance on structural control to a more integrated approach. In 1964, after the Corps of Engineers completed the Keystone Dam 15 miles upstream, Tulsa believed it was finally secure from the constant flooding of the Arkansas River. Lowland meadows were paved over and developed, and the population grew by 25 percent in the 1960s. When flooding did occur, the response was the typical return and rebuild-until the 1976 Memorial Day Flood that took three lives and wrought $40 million in damages.

Tulsa citizens recognized that it might have been worse if a large local park had not been preserved as open space. So after the deluge, Tulsans elected new city commissioners who declared a moratorium on floodplain construction. After a second Memorial Day Flood killed 14 people and caused $180 million in damage in 1984, Tulsans pushed the nonstructural solution further. Working with FEMA, the city relocated over 500 houses and mobile homes and ultimately moved more than 900 buildings out of the most critical areas.

In most of these situations, local citizens broke the pattern of leaving things to the experts and became deeply involved in the planning themselves. Larson of the Association of Floodplain Managers emphasizes the importance of citizen participation in developing a comprehensive plan that takes into account the entire local economy. Local citizens are also needed to change attitudes in Congress, and with more people involved, it is easier for municipalities to thread through the various bureaucracies to find and secure state and federal aid.

In the states affected by the Midwest floods, FEMA has helped buy out or relocate more than 20,000 properties at a cost of only $480 million-a bargain in that every dollar spent saves two on future disaster-relief costs-and the agency would like to acquire more. "We have identified 35,000 repetitive flood-loss properties across the country that have had two or more flood-loss claims in the past ten years," says FEMA director James Lee Witt. The agency hoped to relocate 7,300 of these properties, which would cost $300 million over a three-year period, but ultimately save an estimated $1 billion in damages. Under the Clinton administration's new budget, however, FEMA expects an $88 million shortfall for these programs.

Unfortunately, the disaster policy mandated by Congress remains backward, treating symptoms rather than causes and shelling out more money for disaster relief than for prevention. (For example, FEMA is allowed to use only 15 percent of the total spent on disaster relief for mitigation.) Thus Witt is proposing other measures to discourage building and living in the danger zone, such as refusing to issue flood insurance to property owners who have filed two or more flood claims.

Another important effort is the Agriculture Department's Wetlands Reserve Program, which has set aside 665,000 acres of wetlands and is slated to acquire and restore 310,000 more by 2001 at an average cost of $850 an acre. The cost of restoration overall averages about $200 per acre; in some places the wetland can return simply by being left alone, while in others considerable work is required to recontour and revegetate the landscape. The program usually purchases a perpetual easement to the land at prices based on its value as agricultural land.

"This totally changed the land use on marginal lands," says Wetlands Reserve Program Director Bob Misso. "It's a hell of a deal for taxpayers, for landowners, and for the environment." Since the acquisition cost is often capped at $800 an acre, however, and the price is pegged to agricultural value, the program doesn't work when speculative developers have driven up land prices. And some farmers consider the compensation inadequate. In North Dakota, only three square miles has been enrolled in the program.

Although there are many mysteries in the soul of a river and the heart of a flood, it is becoming clear that we all would benefit from a remedy that environmentalists have long pleaded for: reducing human impact on the earth by protecting and restoring natural places, building compactly and halting sprawl, and curbing population growth. The other thing we have learned about flood prevention is the oldest truism of democracy, that active engagement by a broad, well-informed citizenry is key to improving the way things are done.

No matter what we do, catastrophic rains will fall and implacable torrents will flow, and we will never control them completely. But with a combination of respect for nature and restraint in our own actions, we stand a better chance of riding out the storm.

Protecting Our Families From Floods

Floods are inevitable, but they don't have to be disasters. Across the country, a number of initiatives can move beyond reliance on dams and dikes.

Floodplain sprawl. Much of the damage from floods comes from homes, farms, and businesses built in the river's natural channel or floodplain. Congress will soon be reauthorizing the Water Resources Development Act, and conservationists want it to include a 100-year moratorium on floodplain development.

Wetlands and Conservation programs. The Wetlands Reserve Program pays landholders to restore wetlands, and the Conservation Reserve Program compensates farmers for leaving critical parts of their land undeveloped, thus reducing agricultural runoff and soaking up flood waters. The programs also help improve the farm economy, which is suffering from overproduction. Both of these voluntary programs, however, face annual battles for funding in Congress.

Relocation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's hazard-mitigation program moves people out of harm's way. The program is a bargain: for every $1 spent on relocation, $2 is saved in disaster relief. The agency is seeking to increase its budget for these buyouts to $50 million a year.

Wetlands protection. Under the Clean Water Act, it's up to the Army Corps of Engineers to issue permits to destroy, fill, or drain wetlands-and the Corps grants 90 percent of all requests. Development interests like the National Association of Homebuilders are lobbying the Corps to further weaken its requirements. In addition, a recent court victory by the American Mining Congress means that developers can now drain and destroy wetlands without having to get a permit.

The Corps still has the administrative power to protect wetlands, and the Sierra Club is now lobbying President Clinton and the Corps to do so.

Learn about the Sierra Club's "Protect Our Families" plan. Contact Brett Hulsey at (608) 257-4994, e-mail, or Robin Mann with the Club's Wetlands Working Group, (610) 527-4598, e-mail

Bob Schildgen is the managing editor of Sierra. He grew up on the "west coast" of Wisconsin, a few miles from Lock and Dam No. 10 on the Upper Mississippi.

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