American Rivers named the Upper Mississippi River America’s Most Endangered River® of 2020, citing the grave threat that climate change and poor river and watershed management pose to public safety. Though we are encouraged by the increasingly overt actions of cities along the Mississippi River to address these issues sensibly, American Rivers and its partners called on state and federal leaders in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin to support solutions that hold more water on the landscape and give the rivers room to flood safely.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a grim light on the vulnerability of relying on resource-intensive flood control infrastructure. Floods don’t stop because people are sick and money is stretched thin. Flood fighting is not sustainable. Lives are at stake. We must change course,” said Olivia Dorothy, Upper Mississippi River Basin Director for American Rivers. “Our own river and watershed management decisions are making these disasters worse. The good news is, there are proven solutions that are protecting cities while giving rivers room to flood safely. We can protect our communities and our environment.”
The combination of land use change, artificial cropland drainage, climate change and floodplain management has fundamentally altered the flow of the river. As a result, the river is less stable and more prone to catastrophic flooding. The 2019 Midwest flood broke records, with homes, farms, roads and businesses under water for nearly 100 days on the upper Mississippi River. According to NOAA, the 2019 flooding caused four deaths and $6.2 billion in damage. Yet leaders across the region are making the problem worse, building higher levees, allowing risky development in floodplains, increasing farm and wetland drainage, hardening stormwater infrastructure, and failing to plan for the future.
The Upper Mississippi River needs a water management plan that coordinates river and watershed management actions
“Resiliency is the key to protecting our communities in an age of climate change. However, our poor mismanagement of the river means we can expect more dangerous and costly floods,” said Jim Karpowicz of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “In a time when we should be maximizing the benefits of floodplains to absorb excess rain and runoff we are adding fuel to the fire by building higher levees and incentivizing floodplain development.”
“In the Upper Mississippi River, it’s hard to see the flow of our river as a form of pollution. But increased flows carry much more pollution,” said Whitney Clark of Friends of the Mississippi River. We’ve radically altered our landscape to quickly drain and channel water, especially from farm fields. With more intense rains from climate change, we urgently need to change our practices — for our downstream neighbors, our river and our economy. And we need federal agencies to study and encourage truly effective long-term solutions.”
To immediately address the dual threats of COVID-19 and flooding along the Upper Mississippi River, American Rivers called on state governors with approved emergency declarations to request special mission assignments for the US Army Corps of Engineers to support contagion control around flood fighting efforts, an added capacity valued by mayors along the Mississippi River. As of April 6, 2020, none of the Upper Mississippi River governors have taken this crucial step to protect people where major and moderate flooding is predicted in the coming weeks. Prior to requesting help from any federal agency, the state must have an approved disaster declaration for COVID-19. Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin have approved declarations as of April 6th, Minnesota’s disaster declaration is pending.
To move away from fighting future floods, American Rivers also called on state and federal leaders in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin to fund the “Keys to the River” plan. Officially named the Keys to the River 2020: An Upper Mississippi River Flood Risk, Sediment and Drought Management Study and led by the Army Corps of Engineers, it is the largest attempt by any federal or state entity to respond to the economic and public safety threats posed by climate change. If fully funded, it would be transformational in how the United States manages its rivers and floodplains.
“Right now, when there is a flood, it’s ‘everyone for themselves,’ which adds a layer of chaos to an already chaotic disaster. While some cities and states are planning better than others, there still isn’t any semblance of the necessary basin-scale water management plan required to solve the problem,” Dorothy said.
Scientists estimate that extreme downpours in the U.S. could increase by 400 percent by the end of this century. One study found that the magnitude of 100-year floods in the Mississippi Basin has already increased by 20 percent over the past 500 years, with much of that increase being caused by the combination of river development and climate change.
A November 2019 study, Climate Change and the American Mind, found that a majority of Americans are worried about harm from extreme events in their local area, with 58 percent concerned about harm from flooding. The harshest impacts of climate change are often most prevalent in communities of color and other communities that are socially or economically disadvantaged. In Midwestern towns, historic redlining and persistent economic injustices have concentrated communities of low income and communities of color behind levees. These communities are carrying a higher risk burden due to the catastrophic consequences of levee failure. In rural areas, wealthy landowners are racing to raise levees to protect farmland – not people – pushing more water onto their neighbors.
To adequately offset the flood risk impacts of climate change and development, the Upper Mississippi River needs a water management plan that coordinates river and watershed management actions; ensures communities that are socially vulnerable are involved in the decision-making process; accounts for climate change; gives rivers room to flood safely; and restores lost habitat.
This is the 13th year since 1991 that the Upper Mississippi has been named one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.
“Despite the tremendous floods of 2019 and other, recent years, floodplain development continues unabated along the Upper Mississippi River, especially in the St. Louis-region,” said David Stokes, Executive Director of Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. “Misguided projects such as the Port of Lincoln in Lincoln County, Mo, and the Pier St. Louis plan in St. Louis are still being proposed and supported by local governments. These developers and their supporters in government care only about their misguided ideas on economic growth and don’t care at all who or what they harm by these devastating floodplain developments.”
“This is a defining moment for our response to climate change and devastating flooding,” said Ryan Grosso of Prairie Rivers Network. “We need to change how we live with the river, so it’s time for a holistic plan that brings people together and ends the selfish development we’ve seen in recent years.”
“Making room for rivers to flood is the future of flood risk management policy,” said Christine Favilla of the Sierra Club. “Getting people out of harm’s way and adapting our landscape to allow flood water to go “here” and not “there” takes the pressure off levees that protect people and critical infrastructure. While flood insurance and risk management reforms have, by and large, focused on the urban floodplain, more attention needs to be focused on flood damage reduction.”
Scientists estimate that extreme downpours in the U.S. could increase by 400 percent by the end of this century
“We cannot protect our communities by burying our heads in the sand,” said Melissa Samet of National Wildlife Federation. “To create resilient communities, protect wildlife and mitigate the impacts of a changing climate, we must develop a comprehensive plan that prioritizes restoration and protection of natural infrastructure, like wetlands and floodplains.”
“It is vital that we create room for our rivers to flood while reducing the impact of flooding on communities,” said Kelly McGinnis, of the Mississippi River Network. “We know the important safety, fiscal, and environmental benefits of utilizing floodplains and wetlands and creating a resilient river system and we need to be working together from an integrated plan to manage these issues.”
“Since the majority of the watershed is in intense row-crop agriculture, we must consider the key role that improved farming practices play in finding solutions to downstream flooding, impacts to our communities, and overall water quality,” said Tim Wagner of the Izaak Walton League. “Just the use of cover crops and no-till can increase the water infiltration and storage capacity of the soil by 20 or 30 times, while also shortening the down time for farm operators. Keeping more water on the land vs sending it downstream is a win-win for everyone.”