The cause of the Great Flood of 1993 can be summed up in one word…rain! Heavy rains across the entire Mississippi and Missouri River basins shattered records and caused river levels to rise to new heights never before seen. In July alone, areas along the Missouri River saw rainfall levels over four times normal. Many locations throughout the River basins saw 100-year flood frequency levels. Segments of the Mississippi River from Keithsburg, Illinois to above St. Louis and on the Missouri River from Rulo, Nebraska to Hermann, Missouri saw river levels at or above the 500-year flood frequency level. The heavy rainfall and swollen Rivers and streams flooded 6.6 Million acres in 419 counties.
The historic 1993 flood was unprecedented due to the huge amount of rainfall over an extended period of time and the large area impacted. Thirty-eight deaths were attributed to the flood event and an estimated $12-16 Billion in fiscal damages occurred. Agriculture accounted for over half of the damages. The majority of the agricultural damages occurred in upland areas and was related to saturated soils and heavy rainfall rather than river flooding. Likewise, of the 100,000 homes damaged, nearly half suffered losses due to groundwater or sewer backup, not river flooding.
These are the statistics. They are numbers pulled from the now famous Galloway Report, compiled by a special Presidential committee to examine the 1993 flood event and provide floodplain management recommendations to then President, Bill Clinton. Much has been written about the great flood of 1993 and the debate continues about how to prevent another flood, but for those who experienced the great flood, no report or book of pictures could ever match the memories etched into the minds of the flood survivors twenty years ago.
The Twentieth Anniversary of the 1993 flood offers an opportunity to look back at what we have learned and what has changed since the flood. We learned the reservoir and levee systems prevented more than $19 Billion in potential damages. USDA watershed projects saved and estimated $400 Million in potential damages. In other words, without the reservoir system, watershed projects and levees, the fiscal damages would have been over twice as much. The 1993 flood highlighted the importance of these flood control measures and their contribution to reducing the impact of Mother Nature’s incredible force.
Yes, we learned a lot from the 1993 flood event, but sadly, we haven’t done much in the Twenty years since the flood to make improvements to our flood control system. Levees were rebuilt following the flood and some are in better shape today than they were in 1993, but only a very few provide a higher level of protection and these are primarily in urban areas. As mentioned above, over half the damages from the 1993 flood occurred in rural agricultural areas, yet no agricultural levees have been significantly raised or modified to improve their level of protection. For all practical purposes, today’s levees provide about the same level of protection as they did in 1993.
I am often asked if I think we will ever have another flood like the 1993 flood. Can it happen again? My answer is not only, yes it can happen again, but also, it is very likely to happen again and without a change in our current philosophies for flood control, it will be much worse. Today, the federal government’s focus on flood control along the Missouri River has changed from an effort to keep the River in its banks to seeking ways to allow the River to flow freely in an attempt to benefit fish and wildlife with little regard for the impact on human lives and property.
Following the 1993 flood, federal environmental and fish and wildlife agencies rallied to change the way the Missouri River system was managed. Land acquisition programs were quickly put into place and have been expanded over the past twenty years. River reservoir management now includes measures for fish and wildlife and flood control has taken a back seat to the threatened and endangered species along the River. Most importantly, the federal budget for maintaining the flood control structures, riverbanks, and navigation channel has continued to erode while the budget for fish and wildlife has exploded. The lack of attention to the flood control need has spread across the country and leaves communities, lives, and property along the nation’s waterways in grave danger of future flood events surpassing the 1993 flood.
The federal government’s approach to flood control has dramatically changed since 1993. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was once focused on flood control along the river, but today they Corps barely uses the term flood control. Instead, we hear them use the term flood risk reduction. The Corps efforts pertaining to flood risk reduction has little to do with keeping the River controlled and much more to do with reducing or eliminating the federal responsibility following a flood event. The risk referred to in the term flood risk reduction is not the risk of flooding, but rather the risk the federal government will have to pay for damages to communities, properties, levees, homes, and businesses.
In the past, the federal government focused on protecting infrastructure with levees and other flood control projects. The flood control system along the Missouri River in most cases performs as designed. The trouble today is the system has not been improved over the years and can no longer handle the volume and velocity of the water trying to pass through it. As communities develop, more water reaches the River faster. Areas once in pasture or cropland may now be covered with concrete, pavement, roads, or roofs. Water that once soaked into the ground or ran slowly to the river now runs through storm water systems and reaches the river much faster. Our flood control system of levees and other projects has not kept up with human development and is no longer able to provide the level of protection we once depended on to protect our communities. Today, even though the system of levee, reservoirs, and other flood control projects perform as designed, we are experiencing flooding more often.
Updates in the nations flood control systems are desperately needed. We know it will be impossible to control every flood, but there is still lots of improvements which can be made to improve the system we have. An inventory of the nations levee needs to include federal, non-federal and private levees. These levees are all interconnected. One impacts the other. Some levees need to be raised to improve their level of protection. Others need to be modified. With a properly designed system, we can control where and when a levee is overtopped. This would allow for better emergency planning during high water events, and would reduce damages from overtopping. A levee breach at the downstream end of a levee system allows water to back into the protected area slowly and does far less damage than a breach at the upper end of the system, which in most cases allows water to violently flow across the protected area destroying everything in its path.
The United States has some of the best engineers in the world. Some of the best hydraulic engineers can be found in the Army Corps of Engineers. In more recent years, these engineers have been busy designing shallow water habitat, and other environmental projects instead of finding ways to improve our flood control system. The 1993 flood and several floods that followed highlighted the need for improvements to our flood control system. We have the capability to improve our flood control system allowing us to control some floods and dramatically reduce the damage from others. Simply moving people, communities and businesses out of the floodplain does nothing to control or reduce flooding. The nation must invest in flood control infrastructure. Until we do, the risks of another flood comparable to the 1993 flood or greater remains.
Tom Waters serves as Chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association. The Association represents levee and drainage districts, businesses, other associations and individuals interested in the issues and activities surrounding the Missouri River and its tributaries.