Response to Repeated Floods: Good Cops and Bad

By on March 12, 2019

From St. Louis Public Radio:  This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2011 – In 1973, St. Louis experienced record high flood levels, even though many earlier floods had posted higher flows. In a prescient paper the late Prof. Charles Belt of Saint Louis University explained that the progressive constriction of our rivers by levees and by in-channel navigational structures called wing dikes caused of the unexpected high water. Belt was criticized in a series of papers authored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which proceeded to enlarge levees and build new wing dikes in the river’s channel.

In 1993, St. Louis and many other areas experienced flood levels that were far higher than those in 1973. How did our region react?

The Army Corps repaired and strengthened the Monarch Levee, fostering the replacement of several square miles of productive farmland in Chesterfield Valley by $2 billion of new commercial development.

The Corps redesigned the wing dike into a “bendway weir,” then added 100,000 linear feet of these structures to the river channel, further interfering with the natural flow of the river.

Then in 1998 it published “Changing history at St. Louis” and “adjusted” the flows measured for prior historical floods to figures that were more to its liking, thereby “eliminating” the uncomfortable reality that water levels at St. Louis were increasing for a given flow rate.

Shortly after, the floods of 1995 and 2002 posted the 3rd and 14th highest stages ever recorded at St. Louis. Meanwhile, a handful of academics published papers supporting Belt, and environmental organizations worked to expand parks and greenways along the rivers. Then, in 2004, the Corps revised its estimates of flood frequency along the region’s large rivers. Incredibly, as if Belt’s paper and the subsequent, repeated episodes of high water were imaginary, the Corps concluded that future flood stages and flows along the middle Mississippi River, from St. Louis to Cairo, would be lower, not higher, than forecast in 1979.

This absurd conclusion was thoughtfully challenged by Ted Heisel, then director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, but to no avail. The Corps had its story and was sticking to it. Only a few months later, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, leaving the Corps subject to heavy criticism about the performance of its structures.

Soon after came the flood of 2008, which set new, record stages at many sites north of St. Louis. What was the response?

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