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US River Communities Try New Methods to Fight Flooding

2020-5-9

Hollywood Beach Road used to be a wealthy area. It had a place for airplanes to take off and land so residents could fly between their homes in the city of St. Louis to their weekend homes in the town of Arnold.

The town is next to the Meramec River in the state of Missouri.

Over the years, however, floods have affected much of Arnold. Now, all that remains of the homes are ruins. Many of the trees have been cut down by beavers. Nature is reclaiming the area — and local leaders say it is welcome to do so.

The town is not building levees to keep flood waters out. Instead, Arnold has used federal and local tax money to buy hundreds of properties so they can return to wetlands.

This photo taken March 12, 2020, near Rock Port, Missouri, shows tenant farmer Phil Graves examining grain storage bins that were destroyed in a 2019 flood.
This photo taken March 12, 2020, near Rock Port, Missouri, shows tenant farmer Phil Graves examining grain storage bins that were destroyed in a 2019 flood.

Those wetlands helped the town of 21,000 people avoid major damage in 2019 when the Mississippi River reached its second-highest level ever recorded.

Arnold’s decision appears to show a trend. A number of communities around the nation are making similar choices to deal with overflowing rivers.

Each spring, melting snow in the north and seasonal rains send huge amounts of water into local rivers. The system of levees, dikes and walls usually holds up. Now it seems floods are taking place more often because of heavier storms that scientists link to climate change.

Floods in Missouri, Mississippi and Arkansas caused billions of dollars in damage last year, the second-wettest year on record. The National Weather Service is expecting moderate to severe problems in 23 states this spring. The agency, however, said last month that the risk had lessened because of below-normal rainfall.

One government study predicts yearly flood damage in the central part of the country will grow by $500 million by the year 2050.

But the area awaiting this year’s floods is part of a picture that has changed over the last several years. It now has more parks, marshes and forests on land surrendered in recent years by communities and individuals. Some experts see this growing green area as a promising solution for easing pressure on a river system that can no longer be contained.

“It’s becoming evident that we have to do something different,” said Colin Wellenkamp. He is director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. “That increasingly means shaping our cities around the river instead of shaping the river around our cities,” he said.

To give them more room to spread out, cities are using land close to rivers for purposes such as parks that can flood when water levels rise. A few rural levees have been moved back or removed. Wetlands have been restored to help control floodwaters.

In Arnold, the improvement was clear after last year’s Midwestern floods, said Robert Shockey. He is Arnold’s police chief and the emergency management director. He said only 12 homes got wet rather than 100.

No one suggests replacing levees, dams and walls as the main form of flood control. But, those structures need help from natural methods, said Wellenkamp. His organization represents close to 100 local governments.

This idea is slowly getting the attention of state and federal lawmakers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is becoming more open to it. The Corps is the agency that has been building dams and levees in the country for more than 100 years.

Congress has told the agency in recent years to consider “natural” or “nature-based” flood control measures.

Maria Wegner said the Corps is trying to give such measures a chance. She is a top policy advisor with the Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Experts do not know exactly how many land deals have taken place to create natural flood areas. But, they say the number is growing. Wellenkamp’s organization is paying for a study to record a list of them.

I’m Alice Bryant.

The Associated Press reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

resident -n. someone who lives in a particular place

beaver –n. a small animal that has brown fur and a wide, flat tail and cuts down trees with its teeth

Wetland -–n. an area of land (such as a marsh or swamp) that is covered with shallow water

levee –n. a long wall of soil built along a river to prevent flooding

trend –n. a way of behaving or proceeding that is becoming more common

dike –n. a bank or mound of earth that is built to control water and especially to protect an area from flooding

marsh –n. an area of soft, wet land that has many grasses and other plants