Managing Rivers When Record Rains Fall

Guests

Michael Moore, director of transportation and engineer, Cincinnati
Robyn Colosimo, assistant for water policy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works
Andrew Fahlund, senior vice president for conservation, American Rivers

In Spring 2011, rivers from South Dakota to Louisiana surged over their banks after record snowfalls and torrential rains. The Army Corps of Engineers went to tremendous lengths to protect lives and towns. Those efforts protected lives and towns, but caused more than $2 billion in damage.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from Cincinnati Public Radio, WVXU and WMUB. Record floods this year: the Red River of the north, the Missouri and the Mississippi, the Susquehanna and the Delaware and the Ohio, just about a mile from this studio in downtown Cincinnati.

All that water forced all kinds of people to make decisions. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers blew up sections of a levy on the Mississippi. That saved the town of Cairo, Illinois, but inundated hundreds of thousands of acres of Missouri farmland. The snow that will fill the rivers again next spring has already begun to fall in West Virginia, in Wyoming, in California.

If you live near a river, what decisions have you had to make about your town, your business or your home? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll remember Steve Jobs and listen back to his noted commencement speech at Stanford six years ago, and we're going to be enjoying the audience here in the studio we're borrowing from Cincinnati Public Television, that's CET. Thanks very much for being here.

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CONAN: But we'll begin first with our rivers, and we begin with Michael Moore, director of transportation here for the city of Cincinnati. Nice to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

MICHAEL MOORE: Thank you for letting me be here.

CONAN: And just this summer, the Ohio flooded again. How'd you do?

MOORE: We made out. We had some low-level flooding and closed some roads, but it's something that we've dealt with before. We've made through it, and no harm, no foul, so to speak. So...

CONAN: But as you looked at what happened in other parts of the country, with at least 100-year flood here in Cincinnati, you know it's not a question of if, it's a question of when.

MOORE: That's right. We have very - in our not too distant memory a devastating flood, a 500-year flood from 1937, and folks see the photographs on the walls all the time. You can drive down the river to a church that we have here with a mark on the top of the wall where that '37 flood crested. And we have that as a memory of what the Ohio can do.

Most folks have no idea how dynamic a river it is vertically.

CONAN: And what kind of decisions does that kind of prospect make you make today, when it's dry?

MOORE: Well, you know, not only is it - is the river sort of a very dynamic thing, and it has a very - can have a very devastating impact. It does draw people to it, and people want to be near it. So we have the sort of conundrum about how do we make projects work in and around the river.

We - you know, obviously you can use a lot of open space and recreational space there because it can be flooded and cleaned up, and again it's sort of no harm no foul. But when you want to have people who live close and right there by it, to enjoy the view and to enjoy the sort of natural essence of the river, it's - you have to make certain decisions.

CONAN: Well, for example, you've got a development project here in town called The Banks. It's right on the banks of the Ohio River. Are - don't people - aren't they worried?

MOORE: I don't think so. We actually took a strategy on that wherein to do that work, we needed to elevate all of that development, the stuff that people wanted to be in, the apartments and the restaurants and such, and we elevated that and built it on top of a podium that is two levels of floodable garage.

So it's designed such that when the floodwaters come up, it can inundate the lower level of the garage. We actually have all of the electrical and all the utilities work set up on that second level. So it's not harmed by that 100-year event. And then we can allow the floodwaters to recede and clean it all out, and we actually have a strategy by which we do that.

So we can push all that sediment out to a new relocate in Mehring Way and cleaned that up with a whole lot of other impacts on adjacent park lands and on the habitable areas.

CONAN: How many different agencies did you have to check with before everybody signed off on that plan?

MOORE: Well, we - probably a list as long as your arm, between the Corps of Engineers, between FEMA, between the Department of the Interior. We did this sort of through a process, it was associated with the highway relocation that we had done a few years ago. The development actually used an environmental document that we worked through, through the National Environmental Policy Act from 1966, where all of those agencies are contacted by requirement. And we go through, and we look at impacts and mitigations.

CONAN: Who has the final word?

MOORE: That being the sponsoring agency on the highway project was the Federal Highway Administration. But every one of those other agencies are consulting agencies.

CONAN: But can they say absolutely no way, you can't do it?

MOORE: Yes, they can. But if you show them mitigations and you show how you can make that work, rarely do they do that. And we were very fortunate in that we had a great project team on board, and we kind of pull all that together between the city and the county. We've got good people to work on it, we've got folks who have expertise in that.

The park board is doing what will be a fantastic 40-acre park on the riverfront, have great consultants working on that, as well. So we have some of the best minds in the country, I think, working on that.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, Robyn Colosimo, assistant for water policy in Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works. She joins us from the place we usually are, Studio 3A back in Washington, D.C. Nice of you to be with us today.

ROBYN COLOSIMO: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And what did we learn from flooding? Well, obviously Cincinnati was the least of it, major problems along the Missouri and the Mississippi and then later along the Susquehanna.

COLOSIMO: Well, I think there's a couple things here, and Andrew and I were actually talking when we came in. And, you know, when you ask about lessons learned, I have to say some of these are lessons relearned. You know, you talk about making room for the river and respecting the river, but as Michael just said, we have as a nation attraction to the river.

And so we've got to find that balance between where development should be occurring, and that occurs and is managed at the local level, and yet how we protect that development and protect the rivers so both the economy and the environment can thrive.

And so I think there's some good lessons learned in different parts of the country. We need to go back and ask ourselves about our current policies as the federal government, the fragmentation among agencies and how those things can be aligned to do better with our limited resources, which is particularly important in this environment.

CONAN: But it's a question of philosophy, as well. Obviously 100 percent protection is not possible.

COLOSIMO: Absolutely true, and a part of any kind of flood protection package has to include communicating risk and making informed choices by all parties.

CONAN: Communicating risk is not a popular thing.

COLOSIMO: It's not, and it's also very difficult to be heard by many parties. I mean, you can I can be in the same room, hear the same message but hear it differently. And, you know, we've had - if a flood doesn't happen for 20 years, how does that communication of risk get passed year to year, from generation to generation. That's a concern.

An area that we had this similar problem in just recently is a town called West Pittston, it's up in the northeastern part of Pennsylvania, and I think there was an article in the - it might have been the New York Times, I'm not sure, but...

CONAN: It was the New York Times, and I did read it. They elected, after a big flood I think 40 years ago, not to build levies, and they paid for it this time.

COLOSIMO: Right, and interestingly enough, they're adjacent to a large project where they could have been part of those levies, right, but the downstream community actually chose the levies. And so it's a very good contemporary story of choices people make, and are they still a valid choices 30 years later. And I think that's one worthy of talking about, as well.

CONAN: So they enjoyed the view of the river for 40 years, and then the river got rather too close.

COLOSIMO: Right, and the next generation, who is now living in those homes, is perhaps seeing that differently, maybe because it's the first time they've experienced floods. And so I think it's a great time to start asking those questions, what's the role of the federal government, the state and the local government in trying to modernize policies to best adapt to the river and protecting homes.

CONAN: We want to hear from you about what decisions rivers have forced you to make if you work for a town or your business, or it's your home. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Steven(ph), and Steven's on the line from Lafayette, Louisiana.

STEVEN: Yes, thank you for taking my call. Yes, I'm a geologist and a wetlands - former wetlands scientist. I built a $300,000 home in Grand Isle, Louisiana, which is a barrier island, 30 miles south of New Orleans pre-Katrina. The minimum height - well, the whole issue I'd like to raise is simply building structures on piers and building structures on stilts, it's so much easier to raise a structure than it is if you did it on a slab.

It makes maintenance infinitely easier, as well. A case in point, an extreme case but a great one, is that I built a $300,000 home in Grand Isle, very close to the beach. The minimum elevation at which I could built at the time was 12 feet above the dam there. And as a geologist, I knew Grand Isle was going nowhere but down over time. So I built closer to 15 feet and did some substantial cross-bracing.

And then I survived the hurricane very well. I had seven feet of water under my house with breakers. The old camp across the street came off of its piers and pilings, and it broke apart and actually passed through my pilings, which happened to be recycled telephone poles, by the way, sir.

CONAN: Well, I think other people have learned this lesson. Michael Moore, that project you were describing, the banks, effectively you're building it on two layers, two stories of parking garages. Effectively, that's the same as the piers.

MOORE: Exactly, and we actually have a school, one of our first schools of a new sort of building cycle we did, that's upriver from The Banks. Again, it's built such that it's floodable below. It has a great view of the river, but it's built on stilts, as well, and they utilize the space below for parking so they can clean it up.

CONAN: And Robyn Colosimo, I know the federal government can recommend such things, but these are all local rulings and decisions, correct?

COLOSIMO: Well, it depends on the situation at hand. I mean, individual, home by home, yeah, that's a local decision by a homeowner. Whether they're allowed to build in that flood plain is generally governed by a local government of some type in terms of who has the land use authority. The federal government does not get into local land use decisions.

Where the federal government does come in is sort of in the restore-repair version, which is the - what I would call the Federal Emergency Management Agency, get the community whole as much as you can after a disaster, particularly a presidentially declared disaster like we've seen.

But the Corps and others have other programs that try and take it a step further, that if something rises to the level of significant requiring federal intervention, then we try and look at those larger solutions to include non-structural solutions as much as possible.

Sometimes they just don't meet our current tests of the way we formulate things, and that's a problem, and I think right at this point in time, one of the things we need to ask ourselves is what can we modernize in our policies to do - include more non-structural and structural in our analyses.

CONAN: That word you use, flood plain, who decides what's the flood plain and what isn't, other than Mother Nature?

COLOSIMO: Well, it's an act of science, that's for sure. The floodplain maps are actually published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And they've been updated over time. I know that there's some challenges to that. It's a bit like chasing your tail because there's always maps that need to be updated.

CONAN: Robyn Colosimo is the assistant for water policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, they oversee the Army Corps of Engineers. Also with us here in Cincinnati is Michael Moore, director of transportation and engineering for the city.

We're talking about how we can better manage our rivers and the decisions all this water this year has forced people to make. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from the studios of Cincinnati Public Radio. Rivers from the Dakotas to Louisiana overflowed their banks this past spring. Historic floods resulted, testing the limits of systems put in place to protect people, their homes and their businesses.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates it could cost more than $2 billion to repair just the damage to the levees, dams and river banks. That's on top of all the damage to homes and farms and crops and other property, and that does not include all the damage caused later by storms Irene and Lee. Is there a better way to manage our rivers?

If you live near a river, what decisions have you had to make about your town, your business or your home? Call us, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Michael Moore, who's the director of transportation and engineering for the city of Cincinnati, and Robyn Colosimo, assistant for water policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, which oversees the Army Corps of Engineers. And joining us now, also from Studio 3A in Washington, is Andrew Fahlund, he's the senior vice president for conservation at American Rivers, a conservation group based in Washington. And Andrew Fahlund, thanks very much for being with us today.

ANDREW FAHLUND: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And you say rivers are going to do what rivers do: flow downhill. Should we no longer try to influence that to protect people's lives and property?

FAHLUND: Well, I think there's no doubt that we need to influence the course of rivers to protect property and people's lives. I think the real question is how do we do that, and we've relied for years on a fairly narrow strategy of just trying to wall off our rivers.

But as some of our - some of your guests have already mentioned, people want to be near the river. The river is often the greatest asset in a community. So we've got to find that balance. We've got to strike a balance where we can keep people out of harm's way, provide disincentives for people building in the wrong places, and also make sure we're protecting our natural defenses, things like wetlands and floodplains, which act like sponges and can absorb some of these kinds of events.

CONAN: Protecting those, it is so complicated to figure out who's responsible for what, though.

FAHLUND: It is, and I think that the - as the previous speakers have mentioned, the responsibility lies really with every level of government, as well as individuals. But right now we've got a system that is not really serving the public interest as well as it could be.

We've got to do a lot more to provide people with the right signals about where it is appropriate and inappropriate to be building and living. We can't just expect that we put our house down in a specific place and somehow the Army Corps of Engineers or some other federal agency is going to guarantee protection. They can't.

So we've got to put the right signals in place for people to - where and how to build.

CONAN: There's also the question of people who, again, after a flood, something's destroyed, they build it the same place again, and, well, a few years later it happens again, and yes, of course there's(ph) the human sympathy of we have to help you and rescue you, but do we have to pay to rebuild it?

FAHLUND: I think those are really challenging questions that many in the nation are facing. And there are programs available through the flood insurance program, through FEMA, through the Corps, to actually help repeatedly flooded communities to actually move out of harm's way and to restore those areas so that they can actually be used as flood defenses instead of places where people are victimized.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Lewis(ph), Lewis on the line with us from here in Cincinnati.

LEWIS: Welcome to Cincinnati.

CONAN: Thank you.

LEWIS: The impact of the rains on this area were in large measure because of the water tables rising from all of the rain in April and May, which impacted foundation work. And there are hundreds of homes in the city that now need their foundations repaired at a cost of 20 to 30 thousand dollars each. So there is economic impact in the city.

And on our street alone - it was about 14 houses on our street alone that need the repair.

CONAN: And did insurance cover that?

LEWIS: Not a penny.

CONAN: Not a penny. Michael Moore, city structures damaged the same way?

MOORE: We have an interesting geology here where we have a layer of shale that once it gets wets can be very expansive but also very slippery. A lot of the structures that we've seen damaged, we had a tremendous number of landslides this year, and we actually are talking with FEMA right now about some emergency repairs that we have to do on that.

It's not just flooding for us. Sometimes it's not just from the bottom up but sometimes from the top down, and if folks drive Columbia Parkway, they know what I'm talking about. But we've seen a number of our retaining walls come over or come down because of that slippage as well, and that soil, again, once it gets wet gets very expansive, and that does do some of that foundation damage the caller is speaking to.

CONAN: Lewis, good luck, thanks very much for the call.

LEWIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Will, and Will's with us from Poplar Bluff in Mississippi.

WILL: Thanks, Neal, for taking the call. Actually, that's Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

CONAN: I apologize. It said MS, and I got confused. Go ahead, please.

WILL: First of all, I have tremendous respect for the Corps of Engineers. Both my father and grandfather were officers in the Corps. Having said that, our family also has cropland in southeast Missouri, and when they blew the levees, basically to save Cairo, Illinois, what it did was flooded the croplands, and the problem is the sand that's in the sediment in the river.

If you've got one or two inches of sand, you can plow it into the ground and you can still raise crops, but we don't have one to two inches of sand. We're talking about enough sand where a lot of that cropland will never be farmable again.

And the question I've got is, we've talked to members of the Corps of Engineers since the flooding, and they've told us at the time they elected to blow the levees, Cairo, Illinois had at least a foot of water in the city itself, and news reports and photos on TV after the levees were breached also showed at least a foot of water, and the same Corps people told us that after the levees were blown up, that the waterway went down two or three inches in Cairo.

So what our question is, is you know, who made the final decision? Because it sounds like it was more political than common sense.

CONAN: Well, Robyn Colosimo, do you have an answer for Will?

COLOSIMO: Yeah, I actually don't - I believe it was General Walsh(ph) in consultation with the chief of engineers. And I have to tell you it was not a political decision. It was a very carefully navigated set of circumstances. And I know it's very easy for all of us who weren't in the room making those decisions to imagine what that might have looked like and think different thoughts.

But what I can say is that that system was designed in many ways in a very visionary way back in the 1920s, and many have said it did exactly what it was designed to do, including blowing up the levees to protect Cairo. And so while that seems like a pretty extreme measure from the outside looking in, and I can totally appreciate the situation of farmlands and the conditions your family is suffering, I know it was done with very strong due diligence. And so that communicated and coordinated throughout the chain in the administration, in a way that was - made sure the checks and balances occurred.

The unfortunate thing with an extreme event like this, of course, is that something like you're talking about, much more than one to two inches of sand, is going to be a consequence of that action. In some cases we're always hopeful that the materials that end up in a floodplain will be more productive in farmland, and we would always hope that that would be the situation.

Sounds like that's not necessarily the case, and that's one of those things we could necessarily foresee or do much about in this situation.

WILL: Thank you.

CONAN: Will, we're sorry for the situation that you're in. But thanks very much for the phone call.

WILL: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Russell(ph) in Trenton, not a question but a suggestion: Build a national system of pipelines and canals to take the waters from areas that flood to areas that have drought. I wonder, Andrew Fahlund, as we've been going through all of these floods in the middle of the country and in the Northeast, we also have been going through historic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma and New Mexico.

FAHLUND: You know, it is pretty stark to see the flooding, to have seen the flooding going through Louisiana this past year and then see drought only a few miles away in West Louisiana and East Texas.

I think the suggestion of building canals and pipelines, though, is a pretty drastic one. It's quite expensive. I don't think that we could possibly afford that kind of a solution, and when in fact actually we have really inexpensive solutions for dealing with both droughts and floods right in our midst, you know, reducing our use of water through efficiency, you know, just the low-flow toilets and showers, through better irrigation strategies. Those are solutions that are much better ways of addressing our drought situation.

And our flooding, I think, had - a much cheaper and more effective way of dealing with floods is to actually protect our natural defenses, protect wetlands, flood plains that can do wonders to absorb heavy rainfall events like we've seen in recent months.

CONAN: Do you get into arguments with engineers and the Corps of Engineers from time to time over decisions like those to - channelize rivers in South Dakota and in the upper Midwest?

MOORE: You know, historically, we've had a lot of debates with the Corps, but I think over time, they've very much come around more to our way of thinking in terms of really using levees and other structures as the last lines of defense instead of the only line of defense. I think the example that was just raised about the floodways, the New Madrid Floodway, the one that saved Cairo, is an example of how using big, broad landscapes is a really effective way of actually reducing floods.

It was, I think, a shock to many to imagine that we were going to actually reduce flooding by blowing up a levee, but, in fact, that's exactly how we see it. And there are effective examples of that throughout the country that the Corps has been involved with.

CONAN: And again, opening the Morganza Floodway further down the river in - in the Mississippi, that was designed that way so, in the situation of a flood, you'd have someplace to put it other than the streets of New Orleans.

MOORE: That's right. And I think what's important to keep in mind is that if people who are living or who are functioning in those floodways are actually - they know that they're going to be used, they can then plan ahead and actually engage in activities that are compatible with flooding. I think we actually need to build more of those kinds of structures, use them more frequently instead of just once every 40 or 50 years, which then comes as a surprise to the local communities and...

CONAN: Farmers who then have to deal with all the silt. Yes, exactly.

MOORE: Exactly.

CONAN: Here's an email from Mike in Denver. And I think, Michael Moore, this is to you. If that parking structure floods, who pays for cleaning it and the attendant flood damage to the project? U.S. taxpayers? If so, that's an avoidable emergency, just like hurricanes in the Gulf.

MOORE: Well, we've got a plan. We - the county will basically run those garages, and what we'll try to do is keep that in suspension, all the silt that folks have talked about in suspension by kind of keeping it moved around. The goal is that we can minimize how much real work that is and be able to, again, push that out into the street where it's pretty easy to scoop up and take out. We're counting on that as part of the park operation - I mean - I'm sorry, part of the garage operations. But if it is a major disaster, you know, those things do happen, and we would probably be looking for some help with that, as well.

CONAN: We're talking about controlling our rivers after a 100-year or more floods this past year in various parts of the country. Our guests are Michael Moore, you just heard, who's the director of transportation and engineering for the city of Cincinnati, Robyn Colosimo, assistant for water policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works - they oversee the Army Corps of Engineers - and Andrew Fahlund, who's the senior vice president for conservation at American Rivers, a conservation group based in Washington, D.C. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Kris(ph), and Kris is with us from Napa County in California.

KRIS: Yes. Thanks for having me on your show. I'm at the ground level of a nationally acclaimed project here in Napa, where we passed the Napa River Flood Management Project in 1998 with a two-thirds vote of the voting population at that time. And what we were successful in doing is taking down levees. We purchased over 400 acres of ag lands that are now saltwater marsh. We took down some buildings in downtown Napa to allow for the river to flood, which is now the vineyards.

And we continue to do other small projects in the watersheds to improve flood conveyance. The problem is that even with doing this, we're facing climate change, because we have tidal influence all the way up into Napa - up into the heart of the city of Napa. Plus, we continue to clear-cut the watersheds for vineyards. So while we do this, we also need to pay attention to human impacts in the watershed, so that when we do get federal dollars and state dollars and local dollars to do these progressive projects, we have to look at our total behavior in the watershed to keep these projects viable.

CONAN: That's an interesting question, Kris, and a visionary approach there in Napa. Robyn Colosimo, I wondered if I could put this to you in the sense, I wonder, does your agency and the Corps of Engineers, do you plan for the effects of climate change? We're told to expect much more dramatic weather, more droughts, more rain in some places, more droughts in others. Is that something you're looking at?

COLOSIMO: Yes. And, I mean, historically, we have always considered sort of the ranges of models and the ranges of the accuracy of the data, but not necessarily under the auspices of the climate change title, if you will. I think we're continuing to emerge in that arena to make sure that when you're considering solutions, you consider the brackets of benefits and costs that come out. And a lot of that has a lot - has to do with climate change, of course, and what we do know and what we don't know. And so I'm being very clear that that's important.

I think one thing that Kris raises here is the idea that as sort of an American population, we like to see a problem, conquer a problem and move on. And the reality is in the flooding arena in particular and in a lot of the environmental arenas is that we will never have perfect solutions because we don't have perfect knowledge. And so we just need to continue to develop solutions and try and protect those solutions and those investments that protect the communities and the economy and the environment, but recognize it's going to continue to be a problem when you have local land-use pressures like the wineries.

I mean, you know, I can see that being very real. And frankly, Napa is one of our poster children for the things that we've been able to do under our current rules in the program, that it's a great project with a great local leadership.

CONAN: I wanted to - thanks very much for the call, Kris. We appreciate it. And this is an email we have from Michelle in Colorado: We recently considered a move from Colorado because of an ongoing drought and fires here. We went to my home of Vermont and came very close to buying a lovely home on the river. After much research, we - on flood plains, we decided not to move, our worries about flooding being a major concern. That house in town was seriously flooded in Hurricane Irene, and I'm thanking God for unanswered prayers. However, I continue to face drought and fires. Where is safe in this time of climate change?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: All right. Andrew Fahlund, I'm going to put that to you.

FAHLUND: Well, you know, I don't know that any place is safe from natural disasters altogether, but I think there are ways in which we can effectively hedge our bets, mitigate against impacts. And so I think Michelle actually did the right thing in really looking at where it is that it's an appropriately place to buy a house and not move there.

CONAN: Andrew Fahlund, we're all moving to your house.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. Our thanks again to Robyn Colosimo of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, and our thanks as well to Michael Moore of the Department of Transportation and Engineering for the city of Cincinnati. Coming up next: Steve Jobs. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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