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Commentary: After the flood: Not business as usual

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 29, 2008 - The recent floods in the Midwest demand a new approach by Congress and by local authorities. As recently as 1993, similar floods in this region produced widespread destruction and loss of life. In the wake of that tragedy, many experts, including American Rivers, called for a new course for managing floods. Sadly, few policymakers heeded the warnings.

This year's flooding marked the second "500-year flood" in less than two decades. Overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change means more severe and more frequent storms, including more record-breaking floods. We must take bold action to prevent families and communities from becoming tomorrow's victims. American Rivers recommends the following eight steps:

Get People Out of Harm's Way - Congress must double the current annual funding for FEMA's voluntary relocation programs. Congress also should consider establishing a federal tax rebate to property owners who have relocated structures out of designated flood plains.

Stop Further Wetland and Stream Destruction - Before they issue any new permits to fill wetlands and streams, state and federal agencies must demonstrate that the cumulative impact of issuing those permits does not increase flooding in downstream communities. Congress must also enact the Clean Water Restoration Act of 2007 to restore historic protections to these vital, flood buffering resources.

Restore What's Been Lost And Damaged - The health of the Mississippi River is in dire straights. Its ability to absorb flooding has been greatly reduced. Congress should fully fund the $1.8 billion comprehensive restoration plan authorized for the Mississippi River in 2007.

Scrutinize Our Levee System - Congress must invest in levee safety. In November 2007, Congress passed the National Levee Safety Program Act but failed to provide adequate funds. The law must be fully funded.

Do No Harm - Congress should prohibit the construction of new navigation structures and new levees until the Army Corps of Engineers ensures that those structures will not increase flooding downstream. Scientific studies have shown that these structures have increased flood heights in some parts of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers by five to ten feet.

Recognize the Risk of Global Warming - Congress must pass an updated version of the National Flood Insurance Modernization Act that recognizes the impact of global warming on flooding, which will bring more frequent and more intense floods.

Protect Farmland - Farmers across the Midwest have made a major commitment to helping protect communities from floods through Farm Land Conservation programs. The federal government must honor and enforce past commitments to the program. In the Midwest, more than 106,000 acres of land was removed from the program in 2007 and 2008 -- land that could have helped to absorb this recent round of floods.

Provide Relief for Farmers - Congress should provide $2 billion in emergency funding for incentives for the production of "flood-friendly" crops. Crops such as switchgrass would better meet the nation's interest in biofuel production while simultaneously protecting critical floodplains.

Our response to the Floods of 2008 must both help today's victims and prevent tomorrow's. The communities of the Midwest can't afford business as usual.

Rebecca Wodder is the president of American Rivers , a nonprofit organization that works to safeguard the rivers of North America.