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Great Policy Debate Flows in Wake Of the Mighty Mississippi Flood

Even with more flood plains, floods will remain a threat to people

THE devastating Mississippi flood of 1993 has become the policy reckoning of '94. More than a year after the biggest flood in American history turned the Midwest into a watery bog, environmental warnings and debates over answers are bubbling like carbonated water.

Federal policy changes are inevitable. But some experts say that nature's mighty prowess, and the impossibility of ever moving big cities out of harm's way, mean that floods of great magnitude will continue.

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``Everybody has to understand that wetland restoration and land-use conservation are not going to protect people from floods of great magnitude,'' says Dick DiBuono, a hydrologist with the United States Army Corps of Engineers. ``Even if you restored a couple million acres of wetland in the Midwest, [it] would happen again with the same degree of severity.''

Why? ``The great volume of water simply exceeds the capacity of those natural storage areas to control it,'' says Mr. DiBuono. ``Smaller floods can be mitigated, but man has to learn to position himself wisely in flood plains.''

With Texas and Georgia drying out from recent severe flooding, the need for review of flood-control methods and watershed practices, including flood-insurance policies, still remains immediate. The estimated $15 billion in Midwest flood damage and massive insurance payments for housing and crop damage has led to a top-to-bottom review of previous federal policy and legislative actions. In a study released in July by the US Interagency Flood Plain Management Review Committee, appointed by President Clinton, many recommendations were made.

Currently, two working committees of federal agency representatives are creating new flood-policy recommendations based on the interagency report. In the near future a report will be issued.

And there are other postflood developments:

* A few weeks ago, according to a press report, the US Department of Agriculture was found to be illegally overpaying millions in crop-loss compensation to Midwest farmers.

* Environmental groups charge that agricultural pesticides in Midwest drinking water are now so plentiful as to be considered hazardous.

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* As a direct result of the flooding, Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, recently stopped legislation that would have authorized dozens of flood-control and other projects.

``I believe before we authorize even more projects,'' he said of the Water Resources Development Act of 1994, ``we must begin to change our flood policies ... that often impose the very structural `solutions' that contribute to our problems.''

According to the report from the Interagency Flood Plain Review Committee, any solutions should include less reliance on walls and levees to control flood waters. Such barriers have long been an accepted practice by the US Army Corps of Engineers in protecting towns and farm land. Instead, the report says, flood-control emphasis should also include an upriver focus where land use determines how water runs off and where some flood plains should be restored and towns moved. The report wants an end to the fragmentation and shortsightedness of previous policies. Treat the river as a whole, says the report, so that state jurisdictions begin to work in collaboration with local entities and federal agencies.

During the 1993 flood, larger-than-normal volumes of agricultural herbicides were flushed into the water from farmlands. Atrazine, alachlor, cyanazine, and simazine were found with daily loads of some chemicals ``up by almost 50 percent over previous measurements,'' says the US Geological Survey (USGS). This was attributed partly to the huge volume of water containing more herbicides washed from more farmlands.

In a report released last week, the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., organization that wants strict pesticide regulations, charged that pesticides are still prevalent in drinking water throughout the Midwest. The group used the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) strictest risk standard for food, and applied it to water.

``The EPA has since ordered the pesticide and water divisions to come up with one methodology to assess the risks from pesticides,'' says Richard Wiles, author of the report. ``A person goes through life encountering this soup of hundreds of different chemicals on a daily basis, and the toxicity of these mixtures is unknown and unknowable because of the expense of testing,'' he says.

Even before the 1993 flood, the USGS said that ``detectable concentrations of organic compounds such as atrazine, alacholr, cyanazine, and simazine persisted throughout 1991 in many streams of the Upper Mississippi basin.''

The EPA has already approved substitutes for some of the herbicides and pesticides and will announce soon that it will issue a notice of intent to cancel some of the herbicides.

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