Elbow Room for Missouri's Great Rivers

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

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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