Levees Make Mississippi River Floods Worse, But We Keep Building Them For more than 150 years, scientists have known that levees increase flood risk on the Mississippi River. That hasn't stopped local officials from building up levees in response to more severe floods.
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Levees Make Mississippi River Floods Worse, But We Keep Building Them

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Levees Make Mississippi River Floods Worse, But We Keep Building Them

Levees Make Mississippi River Floods Worse, But We Keep Building Them

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Mississippi River is flooding more than it used to. One reason is an increase in intense rain from climate change. Another is the very thing that is supposed to prevent flooding. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports the levees meant to protect farms and towns are actually making the problem worse.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Mike Reed was born and raised on the banks of the Mississippi River in a small town called Hull, Ill.

MIKE REED: Hull was a family. Everybody knew everybody.

HERSHER: It's a farming community. Floods are a part of life, but the big floods, the ones that destroy entire livelihoods, were so infrequent in the 20th century that everyone here can name them - 1937, 1973 and 1993.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Channel 5, KSDK St. Louis...

HERSHER: In August of 1993, the water would not stop rising.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: For days and for nights, volunteers worked to build a wall to hold back the water.

HERSHER: But nothing would keep it back. The river came right over the levees. Dozens of people died.

REED: The town that I grew up in and loved had 5 to 8, 10 feet of water in it.

HERSHER: Hull never really recovered. Reed is the floodplain manager for the whole drainage district now, and 25 years later, the memory of that disaster is clearly still painful.

REED: Flood fighting is very personal. You work hours and hours and hours and hours of daylight. You work all night. It's a very personal thing that you are trying to protect. And when you don't, it's tough.

HERSHER: So tough that after 1993, Reed and his neighbors took drastic measures so they would never lose another flood fight. Landowners started taxing themselves millions of dollars a year which they used to build up the levees between their fields and the river.

AL MURRY: You're in the country now. We drive pickups.

HERSHER: (Laughter).

Emergency manager Al Murry drives me out to see one of the tallest levees - on one side, newly planted cornfields - on the other, a big mound of sand covered in grass. You can see where people piled up extra sand on the levee during a huge flood.

MURRY: See that grass line.

HERSHER: Yeah.

MURRY: Right there - that's what they put on in 2008, from that grass line up.

HERSHER: That's a lot.

It looks like 3 extra feet in some places, and it worked. It kept the fields dry. So they just left the extra sand even though it makes the levee higher than what's legally allowed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

MURRY: It's very obvious. They don't try to hide it.

HERSHER: The extra-high levees seemed good for this side of the river, but they're a big problem for Murry's hometown directly across the way. During floods, the water that would go onto these fields goes his way instead. He drives me across the bridge to show me.

MURRY: This is the old town. This used to be full of hotels and stuff.

HERSHER: Now most of the storefronts here in the town of Louisiana are empty, and roads are still ripped up, being repaired from the last big flood in 2008.

MURRY: Right where we're at right now is about 4 1/2 foot deep - yeah, a lot of water.

HERSHER: Farmers around here lost millions of dollars in crops. And another financial blow - the high flood risk means they pay twice as much for crop insurance as their neighbors across the river even though it's those same neighbors' levees that are partly to blame.

NICHOLAS PINTER: Essentially when you build a levee, you are dumping flood risk on your neighbors. That is, people on the other side of the river upstream and to a smaller extent downstream as well.

HERSHER: Nicholas Pinter is a geologist at the University of California, Davis. He says levees make the river a lot narrower than it would or should be.

PINTER: What you're doing in many cases is taking a floodplain out there. It can be 5, 6 miles wide. And you're forcing the water that it would otherwise spread across that large area to go through a narrow passageway.

HERSHER: The passage narrows. The water is forced higher. And so levees meant to protect against floods actually increase flood risk. It's true up and down the river. A recent study of the lower Mississippi found floods are more severe now than at any time in the last 500 years in part because of levees and dams on both sides of the river. Lowering or removing levees that protect farmland would reduce flood risk for everyone. European farm managers have been doing it for decades.

But as floods have gotten more severe on the upper Mississippi, many officials here have reacted by doubling down on levee construction. They're also lobbying Congress to give them more power over how high they can build, which is pretty frustrating for water manager Al Murry.

MURRY: People are greedy. That's a lot of what's going on on this river right now. We look at things yesterday and right now in this country, and nobody's willing to give up anything for the moment.

HERSHER: He says he has no plans to raise his levees. In the long term, it's a losing battle. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

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