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- Environment / Meteorology/Climatology;
- Politics, Law and Public Policy;
- Politics, Law and Public Policy / Planning and Redevelopment
Hot Topics: The Great Flood of 2011
What happens upstream doesn't stay upstream
Karen M. O’Neill, associate professor of human ecology in Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, studies how land and water policies change the standing of program beneficiaries and experts as well as government's claims to authority and power. She is the author of Rivers by Design: State Power and the Origins of U.S. Flood Control (Duke University Press, 2007), which explains why local elites pressed for a national program of flood control that has channeled rivers and drained wetlands in the United States. Along with Keith Wailoo, Jeffrey Dowd, and Roland Anglin, O’Neill is an editor of and a contributor to Katrina’s Imprint: Race and Vulnerability in America (Rutgers University Press, 2010).
Rutgers Today: The flood now taking place in the Mississippi is being compared to the great flood of 1927. What lessons have we learned since 1927, and what lessons have we failed to learn?
O’Neill: The federal system of levees, floodways, and spillways we see today was designed largely in 1928, in the wake of that great flood. That system formalized what had been a priority since the French settled in the lower Mississippi in the early 18th century: that rural land would be sacrificed during great floods in order to save urban land. We’ve learned how to channel the water in the lower Mississippi – up to a point. We haven’t learned how to stop pouring more water into the Mississippi upstream, in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri, thus making all floods bigger, and great floods, like this one, disastrous.
Rutgers Today: How do we pour more water into the river upstream?
O’Neill: Every time we build a mall, or lay down a parking lot, or build housing developments in the flood plain anywhere along the river’s length, we make it impossible for rain water to seep into the ground, and that water ends up in the river. Eventually, it ends up in the lower Mississippi, and when great floods come, it’s sometimes very difficult for the levees to keep up. The political problem is that we ask our federal, state, and county governments to build flood control systems, but we ask our local governments, which control planning and zoning, to develop land that can bring in revenues and spread the tax burden. They have a strong incentive to develop land in the flood plain. It’s a classic case of a problem moving downstream, literally.
Rutgers Today: We’ve been trying to control flooding on the Mississippi and other great rivers in the United States for 150 years. Has this effort been good for the country?
O’Neill: Like all public policy decisions, the decisions that led to our current flood control system had winners and losers. Certainly, controlling the rivers led to easier navigation, and that was thought to be a great boost to the nation’s economy, and it is still very important. But the way we developed land in the flood plains of our rivers has led us to shift costs and dangers downstream. Also, in the case of the Mississippi, we’ve taken away the river’s natural drainage system – mainly through the Atchafalaya Basin – and replaced it with an artificial system that isn’t as flexible and can’t always keep up. Finally, poorer people, smaller landowners, and people who actually live in the downstream flood plain have been made to bear the costs, often catastrophic, of all these decisions.
Media Contact: Ken Branson
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