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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


The New Flood Plan: Let the River Run

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Environment, air and water, rivers, floods, flood management, flood control, Miller-McCune, Keith Goetzman,

Flood rescue in Coralville, Iowa

It’s spring, and as predictably as snow melts, rivers are flooding. Newscasts are peppered with enthusiastic sandbag teams, good Samaritans boating through neighborhoods, and inevitable mentions of the remarkable number of “10-year” or even “100-year” floods in recent years.

Vermont is taking a different approach to rising waters than many states, writes Ryan Blitstein in Miller-McCune:

Vermont, a state with a smaller population than the city of San Francisco’s, has become a leader in the effort to reduce the costs of flooding through unconventional means: ripping out levees to let rivers flood naturally and providing towns with financial incentives to discourage building in floodplains. Cities from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Portland, Oregon, have taken similar actions, and comparable concepts are percolating inside federal agencies.

Despite these signs of momentum, change is slow to come, the story notes: “Once floodwaters recede, politics and the desire to live on the waterfront trump sound thinking.”

Blitstein does a good job of tracing the “channelization” approach of modern watershed management along with its failures, noting that U.S. flood damages doubled from 1995 to 2004. Moreover, no one is really in charge: “The most troubling aspect of the U.S. floodplain management system,” he writes, “is that there is no U.S. floodplain management system.”

He describes a key turning point in the thinking of river ecologist Mike Kline, who once was the state of Vermont’s lead river scientist:

He realized that Vermont’s approach — and the ideas of much of America’s river science establishment — was simply wrong. The best way to deal with erosion, flooding and all the other problems associated with out-of-control rivers wasn’t to manage the river. You just had to give the river enough room to move, change and create its own floodplain, and then get the hell out of the way. “If we leave the rivers alone, in a sense, they’ll fix themselves,” Kline says.

As I write this, heavy rains on the East Coast are threatening to take many rivers over their banks, and southern Vermont is under a flood watch. Perhaps the next few days will offer an indication of the success of Vermont’s approach.

Source: Miller-McCune

Image by U.S. Geological Survey, licensed under Creative Commons.