The 1995 Flood
"Here We Go Again!" was the headline on the front page of the newspaper. In a May that saw too much rain, the Missouri and Mississippi rivers were on the rise in a replay of the Great Flood of 1993. Airports were evacuated, highways were closed and those unfortunate enough to live or work in the floodplain packed their bags. Volunteers were back in many of the same places they had been two years ago, filling and stacking sandbags.
Hermann's annual Maifest was canceled because of flooding. In other towns, local gauges showed the 1995 flood was actually inches higher than the 1993 flood. The 500-year-flood was back ... and only 2 years had passed since the last one. Most of the farm levees that had been rebuilt in the past two years were again topped or breached.
Some of the repairs made after the 1993 flood may have made the 1995 flood worse. The little town of Lupus is located on the Missouri River southwest of Columbia. Mayor Doug Elley contends a "mega-levee" built at a site called Plow Boy Bend downstream of his town, would have raised flood stages in Lupus had the river gone any higher. In a letter to the Kansas City District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Elley questioned the valuations that justified building the levee back higher than before.
Management of the Missouri and Mississippi river floodplains is vexing. Farmers can and should use this most-fertile-of-all-land. Developers in urban counties look at all the open space along the river and see an ideal industrial site for their next project. The drive to use this land is understandable, but what is the increasing frequency of these floods telling us?
Norm Stucky, an environmental coordinator with the Conservation Department, says the 1995 flood may be the second highest on record, and some locations had more damage and higher river stages than in 1993. "There have been five major floods on the Missouri River in the last 20 years. Now 20 percent less water gives us a 6-foot higher stage - the floodplain is so restricted that the river no longer has the natural capacity to handle floods."
The battle over levee construction has pitted community against community and state against state. Still, the rivers refuse to be tamed.
After the 1993 floods a series of suggestions for partial restoration of natural floodways to help reduce future flood stages was made public. These included setting back levees, limiting levees to elevations similar to adjacent levees and consideration of a two-tier levee system. The suggestions were intended to allow continued use of the fertile floodplains for farming, prevent damaging sand deposits and scouring of valuable crop land, and reduce the high cost to society of future buy-outs and levee wars.
Some progress has been made. Of the recommendations, only land purcha ses from willing sellers has had an impact.
In March, 1994 the Conservation Department moved to help those who wanted out of the floodplain. Ten million dollars was taken out of construction and other capital improvement budgets and pledged to a buy-out program. Only a small portion of this money has been spent.
The Conservation Department has purchased three major areas with the flood buyout money, including most of one levee district. The biggest floodplain tract is 2,060 acres and was purchased for $1,460,652. Another area, totaling 1,221 acres, cost $309,584, and the third tract, a floodplain site where levees were destroyed in 1993, totals almost 1,000 acres and cost $454,800. More open spaces like these will help moderate crests on future floods, lessen economic losses in floods, provide wetlands for wildlife, and fishing and hunting opportunities for Missourians.
Some Missouri River floodplain lands were purchased when the Missouri Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wi ldlife Service teamed with farmers and other landowners to establish the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge on flood damaged land in central Missouri.
Some people interested in selling their damaged lands turned down offers by the Conservation Department after they saw damaged levees quickly restored and were encouraged by a good crop year in 1994. By the spring of 1995 the line of willing sellers had dried up. Quite a bit of the money the Conservation Department pledged for purchase of flood damaged lands after the `93 flood remains available to help those who want to get out of the floodplain.
The devastating floods of 1993 and 1995 pose questions to society: Can we continue trying to conquer so mighty a resource, when floods and destruction are the result? Can we instead manage the river for multiple uses, such as agriculture, recreation, fish and wildlife habitat, drinking water and tourism for Missouri communities?
These and other invaluable commodities can continue to be the river's gift to society if we choose to respect them. The respect entails providing adequate floodways, enjoying the rivers' recreational and habitat value and, above all, treating the rivers as a great natural system to be cared for, not conquered.
This issue of the Conservationist invites you to enjoy what our state's big rivers have to offer.