Position of the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association

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Flood Response and Recovery in the Wake of the 2008 Flooding

 

An Update to UMRBA’s 1993 Flood Statement

 

September 17, 2008

 

 

The spring and summer of 2008 have once again been marked by significant flooding on the Upper Mississippi River and many of its tributaries, with flood stages exceeding record levels in many areas.  Damages to homes, businesses, crops, and public infrastructure are extensive, as is the toll in terms of human suffering and disruption to communities.  The economic damages are still being assessed, but are well into the billions.  Immediate relief efforts are underway, and have been providing significant assistance.  However, flooding of this magnitude and geographic extent raises broader challenges as well.  As the organization formed to represent the Governors of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin on a wide range of Upper Mississippi River issues, the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association (UMRBA) spoke to many of these same challenges in the wake of the 1993 flood.  This current statement is intended as an update to that 1993 document, informed by the insights gained in the interim.

 

Key Principles

 

Following the 1993 flood, UMRBA identified a series of key principles to guide that flood response and recovery effort.  They included the following:

 

  1. Offer genuine, comprehensive options for flood recovery and risk reduction — provide communities and landowners with the planning assistance and time needed to explore available options; ensure sufficient flexibility that supports innovative and locally appropriate flood control and floodplain management measures; and modify programs to increase the potential for environmental resource enhancement in conjunction with flood recovery and risk reduction.

 

  1. Repair damaged levees — repair and restore damaged levees to their pre-flood condition, where that is the local desire.

 

  1. Enforce building restrictions — enforce requirements for communities participating in the National Flood Insurance Program, including the requirement that substantially damaged structures be elevated above the 100-year flood as part of repair or reconstruction.

 

  1. Limit future damages behind agricultural levees — limit future damages to habitable structures behind levees that do not provide 100-year protection by encouraging public purchase of flood prone structures, demolition of structures, and conversion of sites to flood-compatible uses.

 

  1. Avoid floodway encroachments — enforce regulations that prohibit construction of new floodway encroachments that raise flood stages.

 

  1. Pursue opportunities to modify levees — devise and implement levee modification projects where economically and environmentally feasible and where property rights issues have been satisfactorily resolved.

 

UMRBA believes these fundamental principles are equally valid in 2008 and should guide the response and recovery efforts following this year’s flooding.

 

Lessons Learned

 

In addition to the key principles described above, there are important lessons to be learned from the 2008 flood.  Some of these lessons reinforce the fundamental principles articulated following the 1993 flooding, while others point to additional needs and insights.  These lessons include the following:

 

  1. Flood risk reduction efforts pay off — following the 1993 flood, all levels of government, as well as businesses and individual landowners, made significant investments in reducing vulnerability to future floods.  Examples of these investments included the relocation of entire communities, conversion of uses behind agricultural levees, relocation of key public infrastructure such as drinking water supplies, and modification of countless individual structures.   The 2008 flood brought similar, and even higher, river stages to many areas that were devastated in 1993.  The payoff on flood risk reduction investments was significant in terms of damages avoided this year.

 

  1. There are many more opportunities for flood damage reduction — despite the kinds of payoffs noted above, this year’s flooding also provided many examples of the human and financial costs associated with repetitive loss structures, which again accounted for a significant share of damages.  Continued investment in flood damage reduction and enforcement of building restrictions are critical to making progress with these repetitive loss structures.

 

  1. A strong river gauging system is essential — limited river gauging information constrained the National Weather Service and others in developing timely and accurate river stage forecasts during this year’s flooding.  This experience underscores the need to reverse the trend of recent years, during which federal support for the USGS-operated system of river gauges has eroded and non-federal partners have not been able to fill the gaps completely.  Adequate and reliable federal funding is essential to maintaining the robust regional gauging system needed to help ensure public safety on the Upper Mississippi River and its tributaries.

 

  1. Tools should be integrated to maximize effectiveness — there are many potential tools available to help communities and landowners in their flood recovery and flood risk reduction efforts.  In addition to the well-known national programs of FEMA and the Corps of Engineers, these include i) the NRCS’s Emergency Watershed Protection program for purchasing floodplain easements; ii) emergency supplemental funding that may be made available to resource agencies for land and easement acquisitions that provide both ecosystem and flood damage reduction benefits; and iii) the Corps of Engineers’ recently enacted Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which includes authority for 35,000 acres of floodplain restoration on the Upper Mississippi River System.  Coordination and integration are essential to maximizing the efficacy of these tools.  Toward this end, UMRBA appreciates the Corps of Engineers’ leadership in establishing a regional Interagency Levee Task Force and parallel interagency working groups for each of the affected states.

 

  1. There are important unanswered questions — as UMRBA noted in 1993, every record breaking flood event presents a need to review the accuracy of the stage-discharge, discharge-frequency, and stage-frequency relations that underpin flood control planning, floodplain regulation, and flood insurance ratings.  Considerable work was done in these areas following 1993.  However, this work should be assessed against our experience in 2008, with particular attention to whether changes in land use patterns and, potentially, climate are fundamentally altering any of these relationships.