Don’t overly rely on levees for flood control

by Matthew Glans on March 12, 2012

Levees have traditionally been one of the cornerstones of flood management for states and the U.S. government. With flood management systems nearing the end of their useful lives across the country, a closer look at the role of levees and their continued use in flood preparation needs to happen. While levees and dams will always be a part of the equation in managing flood waters, they can not continue to be the primary focus.

In a recent article from the News-Tribune, the author discussed the decay of the levees and flood control structures in Pierce County, Washington and how measures to improve the system were needed.

A new report says many river levees and other flood control structures in Pierce County are inadequate and recommends more than $316 million in projects over the next 20 years.

The Pierce County plan, which took nearly three years to complete, examines flood risks and recommends solutions along the Puyallup, Nisqually, White and Carbon rivers.

The draft report, called the Rivers Flood Hazard Management Plan, says the county “faces significant challenges in the years ahead.”

“The aging system of flood management facilities, many of which were built in the 1960s or earlier, were built to a lower level of protection than what is now required to protect transportation, commercial and residential structures,” the document says.

In response to this article I sent a letter to the newspaper arguing that any plans to revamp Pierce County’s flood management system should move away from a levee-centric plan and focus on limiting new construction in environmentally sensitive flood plains.

The plans to manage and upgrade the flood plains of Pierce County need to be careful not to rely too heavily on levees. While levees are an important part of any flood-control program, there’s significant evidence the United States already has enough of them.

Quite often, building levees to protect one area can make flooding worse in another. In many places, leaving flood plains in their natural state (or something close to it) can do more to protect inland residents than any amount of levee construction.

For more than a century, the United States has attempted to control water almost entirely with levees and other “structural” means. During that time, the cost of flood damage has more than tripled in inflation-adjusted terms.

The country needs policies that don’t rely on government to protect people from all floods, but instead acknowledge that some areas are likely to flood and that there’s nothing we can or should do about it.

Matthew Glans, Chicago, Ill.
March 9th, 2012

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