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A battered levee system might not offer a long-term flood solution

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A battered levee system might not offer a long-term flood solution
Danny Lamons drinks a beer with friends and community members after checking water pumps

Danny Lamons drinks a beer with friends and community members after checking water pumps on Friday, June 7, outside of American Veterans Post #153 in Mokane. A Facebook post brought together members of the community and people from as far as Mexico, Missouri, to help sandbag. "Everybody worked in unison. Everyone's someone's kin around here," said Lamons. The water pumps are placed along the dry side of the sandbag walls to remove water that has seeped through and pump it back to the flooded side. As flooding becomes more and more common for residents of Missouri, makeshift levees have become a standard along the river. 

CHAMOIS — In early June, floodwaters from the Missouri River were lapping at the foundation of the Champion Apartments in Chamois, a small riverside town northeast of Jefferson City.

A 14-year-old girl and her 2-year-old brother have been living alone in one of the apartments since November, when their mother was hospitalized with a brain tumor. The children are looked after by their grandfather, whose apartment is next door.

Chamois Mayor Elise Brochu checks on the family regularly. As water crept onto the apartment property, Brochu said the girl texted to ask what to do if the apartments flooded.

"If it gets to that point and I'm not already down there, text me and I'll come get you," Brochu told her.

High water levels continue to threaten homes in Chamois

High water levels continue to threaten homes on Friday, June 7, 2019, in Chamois. As of Friday, none of the homes were reported to have been flooded, according to Elise Brochu.

In a conference call  June 6, Brochu told officials from the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service if the Missouri River rose another 2 or 3 inches, Chamois residents would need to evacuate and move to an emergency shelter in the high school gym.

The river was predicted to crest that day, but 2 or 3 inches was a small margin of error, said Kevin Lowe, who works for the National Weather Service's Missouri Basin River Forecast Center.

Levee concerns 

Chamois is one of hundreds of towns threatened by flooding this year as torrential rain and high runoff cause the Missouri River to smash through levees and inundate thousands of acres of land.

The flooding has renewed decades-old concerns about the effectiveness of the levee system, particularly as extreme weather events have become more common because of climate change. The levee system, a makeshift network of federal and locally owned barriers, has fallen into disrepair, and billions of dollars are needed to address risks to the system.

Kim Baumgartner and Jim Epple row down the flooded plain

Kim Baumgartner and Jim Epple row down the flooded plain Sunday, May 26, near Turkey Creek in Jefferson City. Jefferson City suffered from major flooding after substantial rainfall over the course of the previous week.

Approximately 15.5 million people live in the Missouri River Basin, according to the Corps' Missouri Basin Water Management Division. Flooding on the river threatens around 1.4 million acres of agricultural land and 62,000 residential buildings, valued at $23.8 billion.

At least 64 levees, including the A-1 Levee near Chamois, breached or were overtopped in Missouri and Kansas since the flooding began in March, according to Jud Kneuvean of the Corps' Kansas City District.

That number only includes the levees in districts that participate in the Levee Safety Program, Kneuvean said. Several hundred more are not part of the program and thus are not monitored by the Corps. 

Water from the Missouri River continues to rise in Hartsburg

Water from the Missouri River continues to rise Thursday, June 6, in Hartsburg. Glen Beckmeyer recalled that the water in 1993 was significantly higher and moved faster into the town than it has this year. Unlike this year, that speed prevented the town from protecting itself early on. The rising waters forced Beckmeyer and his family to temporarily evacuate from their home until the water receded.

The flooding began during a bomb cyclone in March, when an extreme storm unleashed heavy rainfall across the Plains and damaged 500 miles of levees on the Platte and Missouri rivers. Since then, the Army Corps of Engineers has scrambled to control rising waters along the Missouri River, which extends more than 2,300 miles from Three Forks, Montana, to the Mississippi River north of St. Louis.

Heavy rains and record-setting runoff in May caused the flooding to continue unabated into the late spring. 

J. David Rogers, a geological engineering professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, said the current levee system was "woefully inadequate" to protect rural residents from flooding. Without constant costly repairs, the levee system will never offer sufficient protection, he said.

"You can't control the river forever," Rogers said.

'The Big Muddy'

A levee is a natural or artificial barrier developed to stop a river from going where it is not wanted. A natural levee develops when a river deposits coarse sediment along its banks during the flood season. As cities, farms and mines settled along the Missouri River Basin in the 19th century, those natural barriers were reinforced with earth and riprap or rubble for additional flood protection.

But the Missouri River — "The Big Muddy" — is notoriously unruly.

Q&A: Missouri River flood risk to continue for months

Before the mid-20th century, parts of the river were so shallow that there was no distinct channel. Instead, water freely migrated back and forth across the flood plain in braided fashion.

Levees help narrow and straighten a river, but they also force water to flow swifter and higher, which can lead to more devastating flooding in unprotected areas. Levees also encourage settlements in the river basin, but a swifter, deeper river puts additional pressure on the barrier system during historic floods.

In 1881, a rapid melt of snow pack in the spring caused such a flood, killing thousands of livestock, saturating coal and lumber yards and sweeping away most of Vermillion, a small town in South Dakota. The cost of the damage at the time was estimated in the millions.

More destructive flooding in the 1930s and '40s prompted Congress to pass the Flood Control Act of 1944, which authorized the Corps to develop a plan for flood control in the Missouri River Basin.

The "Pick-Sloan Plan," as it was called, added 1,500 miles of levees from the mouth of the Missouri River to Sioux City, about 100 smaller reservoirs along the river's tributaries and five additional mainstem dams. The first dam, Fort Peck, had been built in 1937.

Meanwhile, a hodgepodge of states, local agencies and farmers battled local flooding by building hundreds of miles of levees along the Missouri River.

Of the 64 levees that overtopped or breached this year in Kansas and Missouri, all but two were nonfederal levees maintained by local sponsors.

Safety issues

Though the Corps helps finance repairs on levees for districts in its rehabilitation program, maintenance remains the responsibility of the local levee sponsors. 

Rogers said the local levee system has fallen into disrepair since building began in the mid-20th century. The mostly earthen barriers have been worn down by the river and battered by extreme weather.

It's a problem not just on the Missouri River, but nationwide. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's levee system a D in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, estimating that the system needed $80 billion in the next 10 years to maintain and improve it.

Since 2006, the Corps has worked to establish a comprehensive inventory, inspection and risk assessment of the nation's levees through its Levee Safety Program. The Corps estimates it would need $21 billion in funding to address identified risks in the 2,220 levees it has inspected, including $13 billion for levee infrastructure improvements.

Meanwhile, climate change is expected to make flooding worse in coming years, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Climate scientists expect increased rainfall and soil saturation across the Midwest to lead to a higher risk of inland flooding, with annual damages from flooding projected to exceed $500 million by 2050.

Despite the risk, building has continued in the Missouri River Basin. Statistically, the cumulative flood damage in the river basin since 1993 has exceeded all of the flood damage prior to 1993, Rogers said. Although there are many reasons for that, the principal one is the increased value of properties in the flood-prone zone.

Short of constant, costly repair work, the levee system will never be able to offer a long-term solution to flooding on the Missouri River, he said.

The Corps could better control river flooding by increasing flood storage in the reservoirs, Rogers said, but the federal government encounters political pressure at state and local levels to keep reservoir water high for recreational and hydroelectric power reasons. Those interests tend to focus on benefits to the local economy from year to year, Rogers said.

Another solution is to "let the river be a river"  — buy out property in the flood plain and allow the river to return, in part, to its natural state, Rogers said.

A better response to the increased risks caused by climate change would be to build more water storage above ground in the form of reservoirs and below ground in the form of undeveloped flood plains, he said.

The water rises

Brochu was elected mayor of Chamois in 2018. A construction estimator by trade, she grew up on her father's local farm. After living in St. Louis for 10 years, she moved back to Chamois four years ago.

Since the flooding began, the city's Facebook page has served as the local information source for the town's 385 residents. Brochu posted near-daily weather updates and alerted residents to free tetanus shots at city hall.

"I'm starting to feel like The Weather Channel," she joked in one post.

Brochu relied on the National Weather Service's online hydrograph for the Missouri River near Chamois, which showed in real time the height of floodwaters, as well as predictions about the rise and fall of the river. The predictions, however, were not always accurate.

"Looks like we crested!" the mayor posted May 24, after the river was predicted to decline from a peak of 27.3 feet.

But the river would continue to rise until the A-1 Levee overtopped. It eventually crested at 29.6 feet on June 6, just 16 inches short of the major flood stage.

A canoe floats at the base of a staircase

A canoe floats at the base of a staircase Sunday, June 2, in Rocheport. The resident of the home used the canoe to get from the front door to other side of the road that was underwater. With the overflowing Missouri River at high levels and causing flooding throughout the state, by Tuesday, it was closed to all vessel traffic from mile marker 0 to mile marker 380.

Jimmy Barham, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the service uses a complex modeling system to predict the rise and fall of the Missouri River. The model takes into account expected precipitation and runoff conditions, but unexpected events like levee failures, increased water output from upstream dams or higher-than-forecast rainfall can quickly change the predictions.

Eight families live in the Champion Apartments, which is only a couple hundred yards from the Missouri River and its tributary Dooling Creek. Brochu said she coordinated an emergency evacuation with the Red Cross, though, fortunately, flooding never reached the buildings, and the plan was never initiated.

That is not to say the town avoided damage.

Along Highway 100, just east of the apartments, floodwaters stagnated in backyards and swallowed sheds.

Blane Cantrell, 43, said he and his wife bought their home on Highway 100 in October. Even though sandbags bolstered the back of the couple's house, several inches of fetid water were still pooling in the basement, which Cantrell believes came from an overflowing drainage pipe in the basement floor.

Flooding also closed off Missouri 100, swamped the city's campgrounds and damaged the city well, which might need to be replaced at a cost of $350,000, Brochu said.

"I've been telling everyone, 'Water is my nemesis this year,'" she said.

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