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Midwest’s Levees, Land Use Questioned Amid Floods

June 23, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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More than two dozen levees along the Mississippi and its tributaries have broken under heavy flooding, leaving many communities questioning the region's levee system and land usage. Elizabeth Brackett reports from Illinois on the struggle to keep levees standing.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, managing the levees of the Mississippi.

Local authorities are reporting the river appears to be cresting in Missouri and Illinois, but the damage is extensive. More than two dozen levees along the Mississippi and its tributaries have been topped or breached in the last week, stretching from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Quincy, Illinois, to Lincoln County, Missouri.

NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago has a Science Unit report on the competing demands.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: The bulldozers have been pushing sand up the 54-mile Sny Levee for weeks. The stakes are high. The Sny Levee protects 125,000 acres of towns and farmland just below Quincy, Illinois, on the Mississippi River.

Everyone here remembers 1993, when the Sny failed, resulting in a $37 million loss. It was that memory that spurred on all who worked to shore up the levee this time, says Commissioner Russell Koeller.

RUSSELL KOELLER, Commissioner, Sny Levee: So far, we’ve weathered it. And if we are — we’re getting really close to being victorious. I use that word, because that’s the kind of feeling, but it’s going to be a little bit bittersweet, because part of the reason we might be successful is because our neighbors just upstream took losses. And so that mutes our joy about it.

Competing levee system

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Koeller knows that the pressure on his levee was reduced when levees upstream failed. In a sense, each levee competes against others in the system.

The earthen embankments which line the Mississippi and its tributaries are divided into districts and managed and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, along with elected commissioners, who are community members, commissioners like Doug Boyer. He is one of those neighbors just upstream who knows only too well about the heartbreak of levee failure.

The upper third of his district didn't get the benefit of an upstream break. Last week, over 500 volunteers worked frantically, piling on sandbags to save the eight-mile levee that protected Oakville, Iowa, and 17,000 acres of prime farmland. But the Iowa River kept surging.

DOUG BOYER, Commissioner, Two Rivers Levee: The problem was, every morning and every evening, they kept bringing the rise up. Like, it was like 31.5, so we can do that. And Thursday morning, they're saying, "Well, it's going to be 32.5." We're like, "OK, but we can do that."

And then Thursday night, they're like, "Well, it's going to be 33.5." We're like, "It's not good, but we can do that." And we just kept shoveling up to where they said it was going to be 35.5 to 36, and we're like, "I don't know if we can do that."

And so we tried until the end, but Saturday, things crumbled. I mean, we had issues everywhere. And by Saturday at 8 o'clock, we got everybody out of that area.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: While Doug Boyer was trying to save the levee, his brother, Jeff Boyer, was losing his battle to save the corn and the hogs on their family farm.

JEFF BOYER, Farmer: The sickest feeling I ever got was when my brother called me and told me that it's over.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And when he said, "It's over," he meant that the water was coming in and that was it?

JEFF BOYER: He meant we weren't going to be able to save the levee, that we needed to worry about the safety of the people, and so, at some point in time, I mean, everybody's out there trying to save the levee.

And, you know, at some point in time, it's his job, you know, to think about all the people who are out there. The last thing you want to do trying to save a levee is lose human life.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: This is not wet usually?

DOUG BOYER: Right.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And Doug Boyer says the levees on the northern part of the Mississippi have not been improved like the ones down south.

DOUG BOYER: This is a sad deal, but this is kind of how the river goes. The last person that can hold their levee wins. St. Louis has a much bigger levee down south. They have a clay, huge levee that even has a highway on top to drive on. They're in much better shape than we have.

We have never gotten the financial help from the government up on this end as the lower section has had.

Rain, not levees, at fault

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Improvements were made to the levees after the flood of 1993, says the Army Corps of Engineers' Colonel Robert Sinkler. Even so, 13 levees in his Rock Island district that runs from Muscatine, Iowa, to just below Quincy, Illinois, have been overrun or breached in this latest flood.

Sinkler says the biggest reason for the levee failure was too much rain.

COL. ROBERT SINKLER, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: The flood really started back in the winter when there was a record snowfall that didn't get a chance to melt. And so when the temperatures did warm up, the ground was already saturated and there was a significant amount of runoff. And then, with the spring rains right on top of that, it resulted in these terrible floods.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Urban development also causes levees to fail. As more and more buildings are built, as more ground is paved over, there are fewer places for water to be absorbed. As a result, that water runs off into the rivers, the rivers rise, and more pressure is put on the levees.

There are competing interests among the cities, farms, and various government entities, all of which have a stake in how the war is managed.

COL. ROBERT SINKLER: There has been some improvements made throughout the entire five-state area that I've got pieces of, but some of that was done by cities, some of that was done by counties, some of it was done by the federal government.

So there were incremental improvements made to that kind of -- I'm not going to say it's disjointed, but it's not integrated flood risk management system. So there really isn't a uniform levee standard that you will find in the area that -- where most of the damages from this particular flood occurred.

Reorganizing farming practices

JERRY DEWITT, Iowa State University: Is this really, in the long term, the best idea, to build where we know we will have floods?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Jerry DeWitt runs a sustainable agriculture center at Iowa State University. He agrees that a lack of coordination allows each river community to plead for higher levees for its area, which DeWitt says doesn't work.

JERRY DEWITT: As you build a levee higher and higher, what it's doing, it's holding more and more water back. There's more pressure. And right now as we speak, we've had some two dozen-plus levee breaks up and down the Mississippi, so much pressure.

If you're downstream, as the water becomes more narrowed and deeper, there's more pressure, and eventually levees break. So we build ten-foot levees. What happens? We get 12-foot floods then. We build 12-foot levees. I contend we'll have 14-foot floods.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: DeWitt says decreasing the amount of water that runs off into the rivers would lessen the pressure on the levees. One way to do that is to make changes in the way agriculture is practiced.

Iowa produces more corn and soybeans than any other state, but to get high yields, farmers use a lot of water that also has to be drained quickly, which is then sent down the rivers and streams. DeWitt says farmers need to be encouraged to grow things besides corn and beans.

JERRY DEWITT: We need a more rich landscape. We need a landscape that is dotted with some wetlands. We need a landscape that has clover, alfalfa, long-term rotations.

And right now, the plain field isn't level. Farmers who try to move into that arena are -- it's really a disincentive. So I think policy could change it so a farmer -- we could offer a farmer an alternative that would be just as profitable. It would store that water out there. It would cause water to more slowly leave the landscape. And everyone possibly could win.

Impact on the land

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In the aftermath of the 1993 flood, the federal government urged farmers whose land had flooded to sell it to the government so it could be turned into undeveloped wetlands. Levees on that land would not be repaired, lessening the pressure on existing levees. Only a small percentage of farmers did that.

It's not something Doug Boyer would do this time, despite the loss of his family farm.

DOUG BOYER: We're going to fight very hard on that, because there's a lot of farmers that want their ground back. I mean, it's their lifestyle. It's their way of life. It's where they've lived all their life. It's been a good life.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the Boyers' ground may never be as productive as it once was. DeWitt says the strong current that follows the levee break can carry rich top soil downstream, leaving sand and rocks in its place.

The land that sustained three generations of Boyers and many other families in this valley may be gone.