The 35th annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a list of rivers said to be at a crossroads. Olivia Dorothy, the group’s Iowa spokeswoman, cites increasingly severe flooding caused by climate change, along with poor river management.
“Every time it floods, everyone rushes to the banks and starts flood fighting,” Dorothy says. “This is what’s known as an ‘everyone for themselves’ approach to flood plain management. It’s very chaotic. Basically, what it does is it means we have no idea where that water is going to go during a flood event.”
Temporary flood barriers and sandbags are resource-intensive and require a lot of manpower to deploy, so Dorothy says those simply aren’t sensible solutions, especially during a pandemic. “We really need to start looking at the river and thinking about how can we manage this in a way that allows for the river to rise and fall without creating an emergency,” Dorothy says, “and give the river some space to flood safely.”
There was historic flooding on the Missouri River last year that forced some southwest Iowans to abandon their homes and businesses for months. Dorothy says that the river’s flood management plan dates back to just after the Civil War and it’s focused on levees and trying to keep the river out of its flood plain.
“As we build more levees and as we build those levees higher, it’s actually increasing the risk that those levees are going to fail catastrophically,” Dorothy says. “We’re seeing, year after year, the Missouri River is flooding, levees are breaking and we’re just going back in and rebuilding those levees exactly where they were before.”
Cedar Rapids is a good example, she says, of how a community can make more room for a river to flood safely without threatening the public while also restoring the ecosystem. Of the ten rivers on this year’s nationwide endangered list, the Upper Mississippi ranks number-one and the Lower Missouri is number-two.