A pond marks where a levee was breached during the 2019 flood of the Missouri River in Atchison County, Mo., flooding levee district board member Regan Griffin’s farmland. The board hopes to set this levee back in the future. Eva Tesfaye / Harvest Public Media

USA - Making room for the river: Communities look at nature-based solutions

The western border of Atchison County, Mo., follows the twisting path of the Missouri River. Acres of corn and soy fields once lined its shores, but after a nearby levee suffered seven breaches in the Flood of 2019, the cropland was ruined.

This story is part of the Covering Climate Collaborative, created by the Local Media Association to support and amplify the work of newsrooms reporting on this issue.

Instead of rebuilding the levee and replanting the crops, Atchison County decided to let the floodplain be a floodplain. Knee-high prairie grass now covers the open space, providing a greener, more sustainable form of flood control.

“It’s nuts how bad things were,” said Regan Griffin, a local farmer and Atchison Levee Board member. “But how quickly nature reclaimed stuff … here we are, everything’s growing back already.”

People have lived along the river for millennia, the benefits competing with the risks. Modern levee systems built in response to past disasters like the Floods of 1927 or 1993 aren’t designed for the newest risk: increased rainfall caused by climate change.

For instance, flash flooding in St. Louis broke a century-old rainfall record this summer. Increased rainfall overwhelmed the main water treatment facility in Jackson, Mississippi. Historic flooding left eastern Kentucky communities decimated and searching for protection against climate change.

“Everyone agrees there’s more water,” said journalist Tyler J. Kelley, who authored “Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways.” “The question is, what do you do about it?”

With rivers pushed to the brink, municipalities have struggled to keep their residents safe. Many across the basin — like Atchison — are shifting away from traditional mitigation tactics to make room for the water instead. Creative, nature-based solutions might mean river communities look a lot different in 100 years: greener, safer and more sustainable. But for these efforts to become widespread, they’ll need support and resources.

An engineered past

Before humans tampered with its flow, the Mississippi River meandered. High waters bathed thousands of square miles of floodplain, bringing rich sediment to swamps and forests.

“Flooding was a natural, almost yearly phenomenon, not a devastating occurrence at intervals of decades,” historian and author Albert E. Cowdrey wrote in a 1979 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report.

Indigenous peoples adapted to the Mississippi’s unpredictability. But early European settlers restrained rivers — raising natural levees and cutting off access to floodplains — for navigation, agriculture and development.

“As settlers along the river go from subsistence farming to raising surplus crops for sale, they need a place to ship,” said John Anfinson, author of ”The River We Have Wrought: A History Of The Upper Mississippi.” “Rivers are the natural conduit of American expansion.”

The Army Corps of Engineers built channels and levees for navigation throughout the late 1800s. When it began managing flood control, it prioritized protecting agricultural lands built in floodplains, which often meant building or expanding levees.

These protective measures proved fruitless against the Great Flood of 1927.

“It was tremendously destructive,” Kelley said. “There were levees all up and down the whole river by ’27. But they weren’t equipped for floods like that.”

Months of heavy rainfall plunged 27,000 square miles of land underwater after the levee system collapsed. Flood waters didn’t subside for months, killing as many as 1,000 people and displacing more than half a million from Illinois to Louisiana. The overall damage was equivalent to around a third of the federal budget at the time.

While the Flood of 1927 largely impacted the Lower Mississippi, the Upper Mississippi had its own reckoning during the Great Flood of 1993. Increased rainfall claimed 50 victims and around $15 billion in damages across nine states. More recently, floods in 2011 and 2019 also rocked the region — their relative proximity to each other underscored the growing influence of climate change, Anfinson said.

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