Mighty Mississippi, Big Muddy top endangered-rivers list

By Mary Kuhlman

Courtesy of Public News Service

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The “Mighty Mississippi” and “Big Muddy” are the backbone of many Missouri communities, and a new report warns these two big rivers are at a major crossroads.


A new report says officials need to rethink the antiquated levee system used to control flooding on the Lower Missouri and commit to nature-based solutions. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Oscar Sanchez)

The upper Mississippi and lower Missouri are ranked by American Rivers as the country’s top two “most endangered rivers.” Olivia Dorothy, director for the Upper Mississippi Basin with the organization, said increasingly severe flooding spurred by climate change threatens both waterways.

“We highlight these rivers to help inspire communities to take action to improve those river systems,” Dorothy said. “Each river system has a critical decision point that will either damage the river in the long term or help it.”

The report noted that 2019 flooding caused more than $6 billion in damages and left communities under water for weeks, and some for many months. Dorothy said river-management decisions that allow higher levees and risky floodplain development will only exacerbate such threats in the future.

For the Upper Mississippi, the report calls for a basin-wide water-management framework to reduce current flood management inconsistencies between individual communities and states.

For the Lower Missouri, Dorothy said officials should move away from maintaining the antiquated levee system and policies that favor rebuilding to pre-flood condition.

“We have to look at that as more of a permanent shift in the way the river is going to use the flood plain, as opposed to a temporary situation, which is kind of how we’ve viewed floods in the past as this very brief battle that has to be fought, year after year,” she said.

Dorothy argued state and local governments should commit to nature-based solutions, including levee setbacks and floodplain restoration.

“Instead of just relying on what we did a century ago, we really need to make sure that we are looking toward the future,” she said; “focusing on things that restore the environment as well as put people to work instead of building more dams and building more flood-control projects.”

Dorothy said that with the COVID-19 crisis stretching resources for communities along the two big rivers, governors should request special mission assignments for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to support contagion control around flood-fighting efforts.

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