Public Lands & Waters photo

The first thing I thought of when I read the story about Iowa’s Lake Delhi dam break was how interesting it would be to see what monster fish were stranded in those shallow waters between the mud flats…but I know this was a tragedy for those who had (and lost) homes around the lake and for those who loved to fish it.

As I read the story, though, it occurred to me just how many of these “record rain events” and “catastrophic floods” we have been experiencing across the US. Why so many, and why are the costs- for just one example, the Nashville floods in May this year have cost an estimated $1 billion- going through the roof?

An answer can be found in the Associated Press story about the Delhi Lake dam break:
“More water came down than ever had been planned before,” he said. “Things were different when it was built, the watersheds were different, field drainage was different, we’re working with a situation that the designers of the dam couldn’t have foreseen.” End Quote

Indeed we are, and not just at Lake Delhi. In the US today, we are filling wetlands, clearing forests along creeks, channelizing creeks, building dikes along rivers, entombing thousands upon thousands of acres under impermeable surfaces – concrete, asphalt, the parking lot at the new super-store, etc. These projects are killing off our wildlife, ruining our fishing, poisoning our waters with run-off, flooding our homes, sucking away billions of taxpayer dollars, and strangling our economy with ever increasing insurance costs. In essence, you and I are paying to destroy our own fishing and hunting and water quality, and then paying again when those projects result in catastrophic floods that should have never happened. And it will get worse, much worse, if we continue on the path we are on now, forever reacting to the consequences of our ignorance, and never trying to create a proactive solution.

It is not as if there are no answers. In 1998, after years of research following the disastrous Midwest floods of 1993, a team from the National Wildlife Federation released a study called Higher Ground which concluded that one-time, voluntary buyouts of properties that have been flooded over and over would be a more cost-effective means of dealing with flooding than the continued diking, damming and channelizing that make the problem worse, and cost more billions every year in insurance costs and federal and state disaster funds (some of them spent to rebuild the homes and businesses in the bull’s eye floodplain that took them in the first place).

Simply put: you take the money you would have spent killing our watersheds and the public money used to rebuild wrecked homes in places where they will soon be wrecked again, and you offer the people living and working in those floodplains a market-value price for their property. It’s a voluntary plan- no one in the floodplain has to sell unless they want to. The goal is to create a buffer zone- restore the natural floodplains- along our creeks and rivers. You protect the waters from run-off that way, enhance fish and wildlife habitat, and you increase public access to fishing and hunting and open spaces. You save billions in disaster relief and insurance payouts in the future. You protect drinking water supplies and prevent increasing flood damage downstream. For those who would cry “socialism!” I ask this: which is more socialistic: to offer taxpayer money to landowners in a willing buyer-willing seller relationship, one time, saving taxpayer money for generations to come, or continue to use billions in taxpayer money, year after year to subsidize the destruction of our rivers, and to pay for development that will have to be replaced, at taxpayer expense, over and over?

It is a mystery to me why our country has not embraced this plan wholeheartedly. It is as if we simply cannot accomplish the things that are most important, while we quibble endlessly and energetically about the useless and the inane. There is a price for that failure. I’d rather my children did not have to pay it. –Hal Herring