The Upper Mississippi River needs a Water Management Plan

Flooding on the Upper Mississippi River | Photo by Crystal Dorothy

Climate disruption in the Upper Midwest is driving more intense precipitation events that are causing more frequent and prolonged flooding, similar to what the region experienced in 2019. Meteorologists continue to warn the region that major flooding is still likely this spring as the nation reels from the impacts of the coronavirus.

Communities along the Upper Mississippi are woefully unprepared for the new climate reality that puts people, habitat, and infrastructure at risk. And the coronavirus threat throws a harsh light on the Upper Mississippi River flood risk management strategy, known as “every man for himself.” A strategy that relies on temporary flood defenses built largely by volunteers with the goal of keeping the river out of its floodplain.

The “every man for himself” flood management approach adds a layer of chaos to an already chaotic natural disaster. And hundreds of years of shortsighted floodplain and watershed development decisions have cut the river off from hundreds of thousands of acres of floodplain, degraded vital fish and wildlife habitat, and reduced the watershed’s ability to absorb and slow runoff. These haphazard water management decisions are putting people and property at risk.

In order to safeguard communities and restore river health, state and federal agencies must develop a basin-wide water management plan that accounts for a diverse range of needs. To best protect people, rivers must be reconnected with their floodplains to safely convey floodwater and we must improve the ability of the landscape to absorb and slow water. These activities must be based on a strong foundation of regulation and enforcement that prohibits reckless floodplain development.

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