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Environment

Upper Mississippi Among 'Most Endangered Rivers' Due to Unauthorized Levees

041619_MuscatineFlooding.jpg
Kate Payne
/
IPR file
Muscatine is one of many Mississippi River towns to see recent flooding. The Upper Mississippi River has been designated among the most endangered rivers in the country, due to unauthorized levee construction.

The Upper Mississippi has been named the third most endangered river in the country, according to the national conservation group American Rivers, due to the practice of communities unlawfully building up levees.

A stretch of the Upper Mississippi River that borders Iowa, Illinois and Missouri has been numbered among the most threatened in the U.S. New Mexico’s Gila River, New York’s Hudson River and Oregon’s Willamette River also rank among American Rivers' top ten.

Conservationists at American Rivers say the Upper Mississippi is endangered because some levee and drainage districts in the states are making a habit of raising their levees above what’s federally authorized.

Researchers have found channelizing rivers in levee systems interferes with natural flood cycles, separating rivers from diverse floodplain ecosystems, and funneling floodwaters downstream. Eileen Shader, River Restoration Director for American Rivers, says the process of building up earthen or concrete embankments in one community can make flooding worse elsewhere.

“The threat is that as these levees have been raised above their authorized height, it increases flood heights throughout that section of the river,” Shader said. “So that pushes excess floodwaters on to communities that don’t have that same level of protection.”

The group wants state and federal regulators to enforce levee permits and shift towards floodplain restoration, to help insulate the region from the effects of climate change.

"We're seeing a little bit of every man for himself, as one levee district raises its level, its levee heights, it forces other districts along the river to raise theirs. Really it's an unsustainable system for the long-term," Eileen Shader, River Restoration Director, American Rivers

According to a survey by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along the stretch of the river from Hamburg, Ill. to Muscatine, Ia., some 40 percent of the levees are higher than their authorized height, some by a matter of feet.

“During that survey, seven levee districts, a total of ten systems were found to be two to four feet above their authorized, levee authorized height,” said Rock Island District spokesman Allen Marshall.

Marshall says the Corps is working with the communities to inspect the levees and address the overbuilding. Marshall says levee systems that don’t match their original permits may not be eligible for certain federal funding if a levee is breached.

“We inspect levee systems in order to insure they’re meeting our standards,” Marshall said. “Those levees systems that are acceptable within the program, maybe they’re breached or damaged in some way, the federal government will pay to have those levee systems repaired.”

The cycle of building ever-higher levees to protect communities and industries from recurrent flooding is causing some rifts among neighbors on the river, at times pitting rural residents and broad stretches of fertile farmland against more populated areas downstream.

"Those levees systems that are acceptable within the program, maybe they're breached or damaged in some way, the federal government will pay to have those levee systems repaired." - Allen Marshall, Spokesman, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Some groups are trying to bridge that gap and promote collaboration in the watershed. Kirsten Wallace directs the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association, which is partnering with the Corps to hold a series of community meetings this summer and ultimately draft a floodplain-wide resiliency plan.

“The discourse will be contentious and implementing solutions will always remain challenging,” Wallace said in a written statement. “The issues are personal and involve peoples’ families, homes, and livelihoods as well as habitat for fish and wildlife.”

Shader with American Rivers says flood management on the Upper Mississippi as it today isn't working, and will expose communities to greater risk as the climate changes.

"The current system that we have right now where we're seeing a little bit of every man for himself, as one levee district raises its level, its levee heights, it forces other districts along the river to raise theirs," Shader said. "Really it's an unsustainable system for the long-term.”