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Better buffer than levees

Water management and retreat from flood plains make more sense and cost less.

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This week more than $2.3 million in government disaster assistance grants was approved for Illinois residents affected by the flooding. Rather than continue spending massive amounts of government money on haphazard cleanup efforts after disasters that hit the Midwest and Louisiana, let's take some realistic measures.

One immediate response to the horrible Midwest flooding has been the pronouncement that the Army Corps of Engineers must build bigger and higher levees. But as The Economist magazine recently observed with regard to Britain, there are several problems with that approach.

Urbanization has reduced the ability of land to absorb rainfall that in past centuries remained stored "locally." Today that water has no place to go but into storm sewers, creeks, and then heavily levied rivers.

Climate change experts predict new weather patterns that include droughts in some places, heavier rainfall in other areas, and decades of much more severe tropical storm patterns along the Gulf and East Coast. We know that the levees in New Orleans did not hold. Recent reports indicate that the rebuilt levees today would not even hold with a Category 2 hurricane. That means the levee of the future would have to be a "superlevee" – more elaborate than anything we have ever built.

Those bigger and "better" levees come with financial and social costs – someone downstream will inevitably suffer the consequences. We can't control nature, and when we try, we selectively benefit certain parcels of land and communities.

Like squeezing a balloon, though, the floods will pop out from levees – no matter how big they are – through the next weak spot. Sandbags are just not a policy.

So, what to do?

As a compassionate society, we need to help communities and affected citizens get back on their feet. But after that, managing the collection of water is the only fiscally sound policy to pursue going forward.

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