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When dams, dikes won't do; Towns find new ways to foil floods

Downtown Soldier's Grove, Wis., is no longer in Soldier's Grove, Wis. It's three miles away.

Soldier's Grove still exists, of course. The residents, all 616 of them, just wanted to keep their feet dry.

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Soldier's Grove is one of several towns and cities all across the country that are taking new approaches to flood control.

Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, the town has always been subject to severe flooding. But according to Tom Hirsch, flood-control consultant to Soldier's Grove, the $200,000-plus proposal to build levees in the town ''would not have been justifiable.'' A more reasonable approach was to relocate the whole downtown area from the river's banks.

Mr. Hirsch says that the project was ''a common-sense, grass-roots movement, '' and that to finance the project, they ''bullied their way into a remarkable package of government funding.'' As a result, the town is now high and dry, and closer to interstate commerce routes. The new buildings even include passive solar-energy construction.

In years past, flood control has been synonymous with monumental construction projects - building dams, canals, and reservoirs - many under the auspices of the US Army Corps of Engineers. But the public outcry they have caused and the need to be more cost efficient have led many communities to rethink their flood-control plans.

One town took its case to Congress.

Littleton, Colo., lies on the South Platte river. The Corps proposed building a channel around the city to handle flood water. But according to Jon Payne, town planning director, this ''would have destroyed the natural river valley.'' Town residents argued that the valley itself was adequate to handle flood water if some parts of it which had been developed could simply be returned to their natural state. They proposed buying up 640 acres in the river's flood plain.

Because the Corps proposal was part of a larger federal dam project, the town had to petition Congress to alter the plan. The town's plan, now almost completed, has been successful so far, says Mr. Payne. Besides acting as a buffer against flooding for the town, the flood plain teems with wildlife, such as beaver, red fox, and moose.

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As a result of the Littleton project, Payne says, congressional legislation was eventually enacted which requires the Corps to consider ''nonstructural'' alternatives to flood control. It also places budget restrictions on Corps projects, according to a Corps spokesman.

Joseph Ignazio, chief of planning in New England for the Corps, says ''we now have more tools than ever before to deal with the problem of flooding.'' These will be used whenever possible because ''the federal government's financial participation (in flood control) is diminishing.''

One of the Corps' most successful projects is nearing completion in Massachusetts, where the answer was a matter of working with nature, instead of trying to change it.

Periodic flooding on the Charles River posed a threat to heavily developed areas of downtown Boston and Cambridge. A study by the Corps found that upstream marshes and meadows acted like sponges, absorbing excess rainwater, and releasing it slowly.

But the upper Charles region faced development in the late 1960s. Pavement and drainage systems would have greatly decreased the land's storage capacity, threatening cities downstream. The Corps proposed buying up 9,000 acres of wetlands which offered the greatest storage capacity. Landowners who wished to keep their property were allowed to by promising to leave it undeveloped.

The land bought by the Corps is being preserved in its natural state, and is administered by the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Division. The project, 90 percent complete, has successfully prevented flooding so far.

Such foresight wasn't exercised in Warwick, R.I., however. Construction was allowed on the watershed of the Pawtuxet River, and one low-lying neighborhood has been subject to repeated flooding.

In Warwick, the Corps proposes buying up and demolishing more than 100 houses and relocating the residents. Barbara Sokoloff, director of planning in Warwick, says that although the project is still in the early stages, they ''expect no opposition to the plan.''

Because the Corps requires that all the residents be relocated, there is opposition to similar plans in other areas. In Prairie du Chien, Wis., about 20 percent of the home and business owners in an area scheduled for relocation are opposed to the idea. Karen Troxell, assistant administrator for community development, says while ''there have been some conflicts with the Corps administration, the relationship between the Corps and city has been very good.'' She says she feels a solution will be found for the residents.

In Midland, Mich. town officials have chosen to go it alone - without the Corps' help. According to Dave Wirth, assistant city manager, when the city gave up Corps support, it also ''gave up lots of money.'' But funding for the voluntary, city-sponsored program has been raised through local taxes and foundation grants.

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