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Elbow Room for Missouri's Great Rivers

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

If you stand at the southeastern tip of Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in St. Charles County and look north, south or west, you can see land that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark scanned as they set out on their Voyage of Discovery in 1804. You can see duck hunting clubs and habitat for deer, turkey, bald eagles and other wildlife. You'll see farmland abundant with agricultural crops. It's the same land that held 260 billion gallons of water during the Great Flood of 1993, saving the St. Louis metro area from a calamity too enormous to contemplate, much less calculate.

Come back to the same spot 20 years from now and you may see 80,000 acres of developed real estate. If that seems a bit far-fetched, consider the forces arrayed against the cultural, historical and natural values of this unique patch of real estate.

A self-perpetuating cycle of destruction

Flood plain development is just a form of urban sprawl, and neither problem is unique to St. Louis. Many of the factors that contribute to development in flood plains are the same ones that drive urban sprawl and the loss of green space outside flood plains.

As cities exhaust their developable space, marginal land, including areas that flood periodically, become more desirable for development. This pushes the value of land above its value for agriculture, recreation or other non developed uses.

Some people who own such property may hold out for a while, but eventually their heirs or others come into possession of the land. Some who wish to maximize their assets sell the land to people who want to use it for the most profitable purposes and so are able to pay the highest price.

The United States loses more than a million acres of farmland to urban sprawl annually. A study by the American Farmland Trust of Washington, D.C. predicts that the United States could become a net importer of food as early as 2050.

In flood plains, this progression is self-accelerating. As buildings spring up in a flood prone area, pressure builds to protect them with levees. After levees are built, the area is assumed to be safe from flooding. This can encourage more development.

The flood plains of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers were among the last land in the St. Louis area to be developed. Eventually, however, increases in real estate prices made it economical to build levees to keep the rivers out. The Great Flood of ‘93 overtopped some of those levees. However, the price of developable land kept rising and now, nine years later, the tide of real estate values has risen high enough to drown caution and start another cycle of levee building and development. More green space, with its potential for nature and recreation, is being lost.

Equally important, levee construction reduces space where flood waters can spread out. When wet years return, as they always do, where will the water go? The only place left is up and over levees, creating new devastation.

A study by the Community Policy Analysis Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia revealed that, while commercial property is worth more and is taxed at a higher rate than agricultural or other undeveloped land, in many instances providing services to intensively developed land is so costly that it consumes all the resulting tax revenues and more. This can leave communities worse off financially and can create persistent social and economic problems associated with unchecked urban sprawl.

Reasons for hope

All this might make rampant flood plain development sound depressingly inevitable. It isn't. Many people see what's happening and want to do something about it. Politicians, prominent citizens, nature lovers, conservation interests, farmers and some city leaders are among the movers and shakers who hope to break the self-perpetuating cycle.

One example is the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance (GRHA). Adolphus A. Busch IV and August Busch III, in honor of their father's (August Busch Jr.) 100th birthday, spearheaded a GRHA drive that raised $4.5 million for wetland restoration in the Midwest. This diverse group includes St. Louis area developer Don Musick, prominent area attorney Peter von Gontard, Charlie Hager, vice president of Hager Hinge Co. and Jim Blair IV, whose family history of public service includes a Missouri governor and a conservation commissioner.

Of the money raised, $1.5 million went to help develop about half of the 13,732-acre Four Rivers Conservation Area, $500,000 went to B.K. Leach Conservation Area, and the rest went to Ducks Unlimited for future wetland restoration efforts in the Midwest.

GRHA Executive Director Wayne Freeman says the group works with government agencies and nonprofits to preserve flood plain land. The confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers is a special concern of the group because economic pressures already are chipping away at the 80,000 acre delta.

One example is "L-15," an agricultural levee in St. Charles County 15 miles up the Missouri River from its confluence with the Mississippi River. Freeman notes that if L-15 is raised as proposed, it could increase the area's desirability for commercial development and harm the wildlife resources.

The Missouri General Assembly removed one incentive for flood plain development according to Freeman. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) originally was designed to help communities redevelop blighted areas. Since 1993, however, it has been used to finance the development of 12,000 acres of flood plain in the St. Louis area.

"The $2 billion spent on flood plain development since the last big flood in 1995 was expected to grow to as much as $5 billion within three to five years," Freeman said. All that money, including taxpayer money, could be lost when the river rises again.

Congress has taken note of the problem, too. The new federal farm bill has some provisions to manage loss of agricultural land. To protect farmland that is at risk of development, the law authorizes the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to help buy agriculture easements. Farmers get cash payments equal to the difference between their land's value for farming and its value for development. In return, they place restrictions on the title to the land, guaranteeing that it will stay in agricultural production.

The easements can be perpetual, or for 30 years. Naturally, payments are smaller for the temporary option. The land must be in row crops, pasture or timber production when it is enrolled in the program. Participants need partners who initiate the enrollment process with the USDA. A state or local government or a private organization buys the easement, using federal money to cover half the cost. Landowners can donate up to 25 percent of the value of the easement for tax advantages.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administers another federal program that could help Missouri keep its flood plains intact. The goal of the Smart Growth Program is to encourage cities to redevelop so-called "brownfield" areas instead of sacrificing scarce green space for development.

Brownfields are previously developed areas where future use is complicated by pollution or contamination of some kind. Redeveloping such areas helps halt urban sprawl and preserves remaining open space. Keeping jobs and housing where people already live reduces cities' cost for transportation and other services. Reduced reliance on automobiles to get to and from work reduces air pollution.

Smart Growth has two $45,000 appropriations to help St. Louis and Kansas City pursue brownfields development in urban and suburban areas.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mitigation Project is a program that acquires Missouri River flood plain land from willing sellers for management by a public agency. This project was established to compensate for a portion of the fish and wildlife habitat lost as a result of the Missouri River Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project.

Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, owned by the Missouri Department of Conservation, is currently being restored with assistance through the Mitigation Project. When willing sellers arise along the Missouri River, the Mitigation Project is a vehicle to help reduce negative impacts of flooding.

Another program that provides wildlife, recreation and flood-control benefits is Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge. Congress has authorized the acquisition--again from willing sellers--to establish a series of public areas along the lower Missouri River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has purchased 9,645 acres in eight tracts between Chesterfield to Kansas City.

Citizen and community awareness is the answer

Well-planned urban development, especially flood plain development, requires an awareness by citizen action groups, city and county governments and the general public. Citizen action groups like the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, Greenway Network, Confluence Greenway and Trust for Public Land can make the difference by making people and local governments aware of existing programs that will conserve "green space" in urban areas.

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