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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

In a presentation about the natural resources of the Missouri River a decade ago, I compared the awakening of Gulliver to the rapacity of the mighty river. I suggested then that the river would not be as kind to us as Gulliver was to the Lilliputians, never dreaming how true my prediction would turn out to be.

I'm not clairvoyant, but I have spent the past 25 years as a biologist working on the Missouri River. For some time, I sensed that with all the dams, dikes and levees, the river had been pushed too much. It had become a prisoner bound in rock.

I was struck by the similarities between the legendary travels of Gulliver and what the river had experienced. Like the Lilliputians, river engineers, spending vast sums of tax-dollars, have worked furiously the p ast 70 years to bind this giant of a river.

Perhaps some were arrogant enough to believe they had succeeded.

The great flood of '93 should have finally driven home the point that this great river can't be tamed. This was, after all, the fourth major flood event on the river since 1973. Sad to say, now two years later, it appears we still haven't learned this lesson. "Conquer," not "share" is the prevailing mind set as efforts continue to bind the Missouri again.

That the river needs just a bit more breathing room seems abundantly clear by examining flood height and discharge or flow data from the United States Geological Survey gauging station at Hermann, river mile 98:

Date Discharge Gauge
June 6, 1903 676,000 cfs 29.5 ft.
July 19, 1951 618,000 cfs 33.3 ft.
October 5, 1986 547,000 cfs 35.8 ft.

(Discharge of water is expressed as cubic feet per second, cfs.)

This information reveals that the flood-carrying capacity of the Missouri River has been significantly reduced. In fact, it indicates that 20 percent less volume today results in a flood height which is 6 feet higher than at the turn of the century. This explains why the old-timers who settled on the higher ground in the Missouri River valley could go through flood after flood in the first half of this century without getting wet. Today, however, every major flood seems to inflict damage on homes and property which have never previously flooded.

What is the explanation for this loss of flood carrying capacity? While there are a number of factors, one line in the folk song, O Shenandoah provides an important insight - "cross the wide Missouri."

There are probably 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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