Published November 17, 2014
Another year, another "flood of the century" on the Mississippi River. But while the lower Mississippi has a plan for major flooding, the upper part of the nation's largest waterway is more subject to nature's whims.
Some river interests want to change that through "Plan H," an Army Corps of Engineers proposal to raise and upgrade most levees north of St. Louis. But many in Missouri are concerned because the plan would create something of a spillway in three northern Missouri counties — Pike, Lincoln and St. Charles. Politicians and residents there say they don't want to become a "dumping ground" for floodwaters.
"The people in our three counties are accustomed to taking in floodwater — it happens every time the water comes down," Pike County Clerk Bob Kirkpatrick said. "But this is going to be shared. We're not going to take the flooding while people across the river have their fields and their towns protected."
Plan H was borne out of years of study into the best way to tame the upper Mississippi, from where it begins as a trickle in Minnesota through its midway point near St. Louis.
The upper river includes roughly 140 levees. Under Plan H, all but about 20 would be raised to protect against a 500-year flood — a flood so severe it would be expected to occur once every half-millennium.
The plan has some powerful supporters — the Mississippi River Commission, the Upper Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri River Association (UMIMRA), agricultural and political interests in Illinois. But even the corps refuses to endorse it, citing a low return on investment.
Virtually from the time the explorer Hernando De Soto crossed the Mississippi River in 1541, people have been trying to control it.
Flooding this year again showed those efforts have drawn mixed results. Crests topped record levels at many places in the lower half of the Mississippi, damaging or destroying thousands of homes and businesses.
But the lower Mississippi has provisions that the upper part lacks — specifically designated spillways in southern Missouri and in Louisiana that can be intentionally flooded, helping to reduce water levels and averting catastrophe at some communities. The spillways were utilized this spring.
Plan H takes a different approach, focusing on making levees bigger and stronger
Levees along the upper Mississippi range greatly in size, quality and sophistication. Some are sturdy, closely monitored, federally funded, with intricate drainage systems, built to protect against the biggest of floods. Others are little more than mounds of dirt that get overtopped frequently.
In 1999, Congress asked the corps to put together a comprehensive plan to reduce flood damage on the upper Mississippi. Engineers came up with roughly 20 proposals. After years of study and meetings, Plan H was deemed the best of the plans.
Problem was, nobody told anyone in Missouri. Small meeting notices were posted in some newspapers as the plan was developed, but they went largely unnoticed. It wasn't until 2009 that Kirkpatrick learned about Plan H in a packet distributed to his county commissioners. By then, the plan had been submitted to Congress.
Almost immediately, Missourians were in an uproar. By last year, a petition drive opposing Plan H drew 6,500 signatures. Politicians from both sides of the aisle — including Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and Republican U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, who represents the three counties — expressed concerns.
Mike Petersen, spokesman for the corps office in St. Louis, said the agency should have done a better job of keeping Missourians apprised of the plan.
"I don't think we did a great job of involving them early on in the process, so what they saw was a plan submitted to Congress and the assumption was that it was a completed plan," Petersen said.
In fact, Petersen said, the idea was simply to give Congress a look at the options being proposed. Actual implementation of a plan is a long way away, he said.
"It will take years and years of further study and collaboration, and a very large investment in money," he said.
Plan H would cost at least $4 billion to build up the levees and buy up the unprotected areas. Petersen said the corps would require at least a 1-to-1 cost-to-benefit ratio before it would recommend the plan. As it stands, Plan H would return 5 cents for every dollar spent.
"That's in no way fair to the rest of the taxpayers in the country," said Jerry Daugherty, a county commissioner for St. Charles County.
Still, supporters said something needs to change.
"It doesn't make much economic sense to continue this pattern where we allow things to flood, then repair, then rebuild," UMIMRA executive director Kim Robinson said, citing billions of dollars in damage from major floods on the upper Mississippi in 1993, 1995 and 2008. "You'd be money ahead to fix the problem on the front end."
Many details are yet to be worked out. One thing that isn't clear is how much additional water would flow to Missouri and south if bigger, stronger levees are built. Breached or overtopped levees allow the water to spread out. Missourians worry that the unbreakable funnel would cause flooding to be much worse here, threatening not only ag land but unprotected river towns like Clarksville and Elsberry.
Geoff Sterne's family has been farming in Pike County since the Great Depression. Now, his two boys in their 20s help him farm corn and soybeans on 1,200 acres, 750 of which are in the floodplain. He has no interest in selling his land and watching it become a spillway.
"I'm not opposed to a comprehensive plan, we just don't want to take all the water," Sterne said. "It would kind of make us a dumping ground for everybody else."