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Grafton, Illinois, USA

Jim Beasley


Jim Beasley, fisherman

Jim Beasley has fished Grafton's fertile waters since he was a boy. It's a proud family tradition he hopes to pass on to his children.

"Well, just being your own boss and being out in the fresh air, and the sunshine, and the excitement of catching a few fish once in a while," says Beasley. "The river kind of gives you a boundary, too. This is as far as you go. I can't image somebody living where you don't have a river."

The flood of 1993 hasn't changed his mind about living on the river. Armed with a new respect for the river's power, Beasley still hopes his sons will go into the family business.

The tiny fishing village of Grafton, where the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers meet, is in many ways, no different from waterfront towns all over the world. It's a town of many generations; most people born here have stayed here.

Sign in Grafton, Illinois

Grafton, Illinois

Life in Grafton inescapably tied to a river and since its founding more than 150 years ago, the people of Grafton have had their share of tough times. In the beginning, they learned to endure the seasonal high waters of the Mississippi. It was no more than an inconvenience; a spring ritual. But in 1927, the river began to change.

Shaped like a funnel, with the Rockies rising to the west, and the Appalachians on the east, the Mississippi River basin drains thirty-one states and two Canadian provinces. In 1927, heavy rains and excessive amounts of melting snow caused the Mississippi to swell. Floodplain cities were inundated with water; farms and industries destroyed; transportation paralyzed. Over 600,000 people became homeless.

That's when the Army Corps Of Engineers stepped in to control the river. They started by building a series of locks, dams and thousands of miles of levees: parallel mounds of earth and concrete sometimes twenty-five feet high. It was an enormous and innovative project. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before. This was the battleground in the fight between the Corps of Engineers and the river.

But the end result was never clearly envisioned, and the final cost was enormous. Gone are irreplaceable breeding grounds and habitat for plants and animals. Gone are aquatic ecosystems that cleansed the river's water. Gone are woodlands that eased the burden of floods.

Today, more than sixty percent of the floodplain wetlands and forests have simply disappeared. In their place are twenty-two hundred miles of levees protecting millions of acres of rich farmland and hundreds of river front cities. Grafton's flooding problems seemed solved. For years the people of Grafton rarely thought about the vulnerability of their shoreline. Then a strange thing happened.

In 1993, an almost never-ending series of storms stalled over the upper Mississippi basin. Though this weather pattern was unusually severe, the actual amount of rainfall along the Mississippi hasn't really changed over the past 90 years. What had changed were the wetlands, which are now carpeted with concrete and asphalt, accelerating run-off and flooding.

Inundated towns are reminders that nothing can stop a powerful river from trying to reclaim its rightful inheritance.

By early spring, the land couldn't absorb any more rain and the river started to rise. No one expects it to get worse but it does. As the water rises, a massive levee system struggles to protect the city of St. Louis from the flood. Near Grafton and the surrounding communities, farmland that once separated the Illinois and Missouri Rivers from the Mississippi, slowly becomes an inland sea.

Flooded farm near Grafton

Flooded farm near Grafton

In a final act of desperation, floodplain communities reinforced their final line of defense with sandbags. Despite their hard work, the Mississippi, fed by a hundred thousand surging streams and rivers, crashes through levee after levee. The long siege is over. The river wins.

Grafton's main street joins the Mississippi. In shock, the townspeople take to their boats and survey the damage. Even before the waters recede, communities all along the Mississippi begin to re-evaluate plans for future development.

This time Grafton was lucky. When the Mississippi slowly returned to its banks the town was still there. For others it's too late. Inundated towns are reminders that nothing can stop a powerful river from trying to reclaim its rightful inheritance. With a new appreciation for the river and with a greater understanding of the roll of wetlands in mitigating flooding, there is real hope that the people of Grafton will continue to thrive despite threats of flooding in the future.



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