Following Record River Levels, Should Davenport Build A Flood Wall?

May 24, 2019

The floodwaters have largely receded in Davenport, weeks after the Mississippi River crested at its highest level on record and flooded parts of downtown. The city is known for its progressive approach to flooding, giving the river more room to ebb and flow while other communities build walls. But the recent flooding is testing this philosophy of resilience.

The day the temporary flood barrier broke and floodwaters swamped downtown Davenport, Cris and Scott Ryder watched the river rush into their brand new offices of their realty company. The next day, floodwaters were still inches and feet deep in some part of their building.

“It came so fast. It was terrifying," Cris said. "When I was out there and we were sandbagging, we probably shouldn’t have been out there to begin with."

The swollen river, already well out of its banks, had rushed across the parking lot behind their building, swept into their garage and then crept in to their ground floor.

"It came so fast. It was terrifying When I was out there and we were sandbagging, we probably shouldn't have been out there to begin with." - Cris Ryder, Davenport business owner

Water was still seeping in through their brick walls, fans and pumps running constantly. Upstairs, they walked out on the rooftop, looking out over the flooded Mississippi. There was just water, everywhere. Cars floating, some kayakers gliding through what should be a parking lot. 

Cris and Scott spent some $200,000 renovating this old building, in the heart of the downtown’s trendy east end. Scott says being in Davenport means being close to the river, but now he wants more permanent protection.

“But I wish that there was something to limit the exposure and property loss and the thousands of dollars it is causing everyone and us to do that," Scott said. "So I wish there was something in between.”

Just down the street, Matthew Osborn was supposed to open his new restaurant The Half Nelson the day of the flood. Now he says he’ll need a couple more weeks to clean up. Despite the damage, his answer to the flood wall question? A resounding no.

"I wish that there was something to limit the exposure and property loss and the thousands of dollars it is causing everyone and us to do that. So I wish there was something in between." - Scott Ryder, Davenport business owner

“The vibrancy of downtown Davenport and the identity of downtown Davenport is so connected to the river," Osborn said. "And the other thing that is even more persuasive to me is the… the more people upriver that build a floodwall, the worse the effect becomes for people down river.”

Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch is one of the strongest voices against the flood wall. He calls the river the “heart throb” of the community.

“We decided when the flood '93 happened, the community decided we’re not going to build a flood wall," Klipsch said. "We’re going to in fact find ways, as we have for the last 26 years, of dealing with the issues."

Instead of installing a hardened concrete wall, Davenport bought out some low-lying properties, built parks along its riverfront, and restored marshes and wetlands that can hold the water. Businesses fortified their ground floors and got in generators to pump water out of basements. And the city kept its access to the Mississippi.

“So it’s a balance of those two things, and our commitment as a community to say, we’re not going to put up something that keeps, maybe permanently keeps the water out of Davenport, but also changes the whole dynamic of our riverfront and causes problems down river,” Klipsch said.

This resilient approach is pretty rare. Davenport is the largest Iowa city on the Mississippi to not have a permanent flood wall. Many researchers and environmental groups consider this to be more progressive and more realistic.

"After the disaster has passed, we should pause and take a little longer view on whether we're really doing the right thing. Or have we simply survived another event with a future one just around the corner." - Larry Weber, University of Iowa engineering professor

Up and down the river, communities have grown up in the floodplain, building houses and farms, and erecting levees and floodwalls to try and protect it all. This process of constricting the river can make flooding worse elsewhere, says Larry Weber, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa and a co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center.

“Having a functioning floodplain is important to flood mitigation,” Weber said.

Weber says more rainfall and more flooding brought on by climate change is making these debates even more urgent.

“If we were going to take a 50-year view, or 100-year view of the Mississippi River, what would we want that to look like 100 years from now, given what we’ve experience already with flooding,” Weber said.

“After the disaster has passed, we should pause and take a little longer view on whether we’re really doing the right thing. Or have we simply survived another event with a future one just around the corner.”

Ten miles downriver, the city of Buffalo, population 1,200, is acutely aware of the debate going on in Davenport. They were hit hard by the recent flooding too. City councilmember Sally Rodriguez and Mayor Doug Anderson say there’s only so much they can do to protect themselves if Davenport builds a wall.

“No doubt. No doubt," said Rodriguez. "If they have a flood wall it will definitely affect us.”

Anderson agreed, saying he hoped Davenport would be a good neighbor.

“Everybody wants to protect their people," he said. "I hope they don’t do it, but like Sally said, what do you do?”

Upriver in Davenport, the floodwaters have largely receded, some affected businesses have reopened. Others are still racing to tear out flooring and drywall before the mold sets in. On a recent rainy day, Mayor Klipsch met with the owners of the Great River Brewery, who say their brewing equipment is a total loss. Klipsch conceded he’s not sure what actions the community will ultimately take.

“Well know too, you know we’re all here for you. What does that mean? I don’t know yet," Klipsch said. "You’re still assessing what the challenges are. But just so you know, keep us informed, let us know. I think the community at large could step up too."

Mayor Klipsch says over the next few weeks and months, Davenport will explore the option of a flood wall, not for the first time, and perhaps not the last time either. Communities up and down the river will be waiting to see what they choose.