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A Look Back at the Great Flood of 1993

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

only a handful of people alive today who remember when it was indeed the wide Missouri River. Fewer still realize that nearly one billion tax dollars have been spent during the past 70 years to convert over 100,000 acres of the wide, publicly owned river to privately owned floodplain. Severely constricting the river was necessary to provide a 9 foot-deep, 300-foot-wide "water highway" for the commercial towing industry.

The problem of rising river stages has also been worsened by the construction of levees right along the bank of the narrowed river. With the river severely constricted and levees walling out the floodplain, the water has no place to go but up. And yet, with each flood event and higher river stage, the battle cry of those who believe the river can be conquered is for more and higher levees.

Following the Great Flood of '93, it seemed that the voice of reason, suggesting a need to live more in harmony with the river, would be heard. However, it now seems apparent that meaningful floodway restoration or reform will never occur as long as restoration funds are made available.

The real frustration is that giving the river a bit more breathing room would benefit landowners and communities along the river, as well as fish, wildlife and forest resources. No one is suggesting that the river be turned loose and allowed to recapture the entire floodplain, as it did in the days of Lewis and Clark. However, it's apparent we need some kind of compromise.

Using space age computer modeling capabilities, the relationship between volume or flow, floodway width and levee height could be analyzed. Allowing the river itself to widen out a bit to recapture some of the "wide Missouri" should also be included in the analysis. The goal would be to reduce future flood heights while maximizing the acreage of floodplain cropland that could be protected from perhaps a 50- or even 100-year flood event.

The benefits would be profound. Landowners and communities could face the future with more assurance that they would not experience a devastating flood event every few years, and fish, wildlife and forest resources would flourish in the floodway.

The initial outlay for such a plan would be high, because floodway land would have to be purchased and some levees moved. However, if prorated over a period of years, it would be far less costly than the present course of trying to conquer the river and continuing to experience four major flood events every 20 years.

The clear choice is to begin working in harmony with the river. If we don't, the sleeping giant will continue to stir, spreading fear and damage throughout the river valley. Time is on the river's side and the river will win. The mainstem reservoirs in the upper basin are reportedly filling with sediment more quickly than predicted. Less storage capacity means less control. Furthermore, congress may not support future bailouts.

While sitting on the Missouri River bluff during the flood of `93, I saw the turbulent river stretching from bluff to bluff. In the distance loomed the Callaway Nuclear Power Plant. I was struck with the thought that we can harness the atom to generate electricity, but we can't tame the Missouri River.

It's clear that our approach to the Missouri River has been wrong. We should treat this sleeping giant as a friend, not an enemy.

Doing so will assure that when the river stirs, it will be kind to us as Gulliver was to the Lilliputians

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