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Environmentalists Criticize Missouri Flood Advisory Report Calling For Tougher Levees

An illustration of flooded homes.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
A report produced by a Gov. Parson-appointed panel recommended repairing and strengthening levees more than it advised solutions that don't depend on structures to control floods.

An advisory group Gov. Mike Parson appointed during the record-breaking 2019 floods has released a report that calls for strengthening levees and other structures that control floods. 

The report from state regulators, agriculture groups and navigation industry representatives also recommends that state and federal officials increase funding for levee repairs and provide financial assistance for farmers with property damage from floods. 

Environmentalists called the group’s recommendations short-sighted because the strategies are largely focused on levees than on other solutions, such as wetland restoration and buying frequently flooded properties.

The report needs to include more solutions that move people out of harm’s way, said Maisah Khan, policy manager at Mississippi River Network. 

“We can’t stop floods from happening, but we can reduce the harm they cause by reducing our exposure to them,” Khan said. “There are a lot of the tools in the toolkit, and we keep reaching for the levee tool.”

When the advisory group released an interim version of its report in January, Khan recommended changes to the report while working as the water policy director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. She wanted the report to acknowledge that climate change is making floods worse, but the words “climate change” did not appear in the interim or final report.

The advisory group’s final report kept many of the same recommendations, but added a few to reflect suggestions from environmental groups, said Dru Buntin, deputy director of the state Department of Natural Resources. 

“We tend to see everyone agreeing that they want to see improvements in how we approach reducing flood damages,” Buntin said. “But the difficulty becomes one person’s improvement is another person’s impact.” 

Environmentalists lobbied Parson to appoint conservation organizations and scientists to the advisory group but were not successful. They also wanted the advisory group to work harder to encourage the public to provide feedback on its recommendations. The state should have organized a public comment period on the interim report, Khan said. 

“If the governor is going to be using this document to make decisions about how we deal with flooding in the future, I think there needs to be public participation,” she said. “Despite the fact that the meetings were open to the public, they were not held at times the public would be engaged. I’ve never experienced someone impacted by floods coming in to comment.” 

Conservationists do support one of the recommendations: a proposal from Atchison County landowners to move levees away from the Missouri River. Projects like that represent a step in the right direction, said Jim Karpowicz, a river advocate for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. 

“It’s like, we don’t have to rebuild this [levee]. Let’s think about giving this river more room to roam, taking the lands that have been flooded five out of 10 years and giving it back to the river,” Karpowicz said. “I believe that people are starting to say, ‘Hey, our flood policy has not been working.’”

State agencies plan to work with other Midwestern states and federal agencies on the recommendations, said Dru Buntin at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.