Green Solutions to the Midwest’s Growing Flooding Problem

Vulnerable, non-coastal communities are increasingly recognizing the need to develop resilient, long-term solutions to climate change as a warming climate continues to bring increased rainfall and more intense storms.

This spring, flooding of the Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, and Illinois rivers devastated homes, businesses, and infrastructure across the Midwest. AccuWeather estimated $12.5 billion in direct damages and economic losses. Because risks of exceeding river flood levels in these Midwestern regions continued into the summer, recovery was even more difficult. In addition to damaged infrastructure and economic losses, three deaths were attributed to the flooding in the Midwest, and another eight from additional flooding in the Southern Plains. Thousands of Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas residents were evacuated, and many lost their homes and possessions.

One Iowa resident said of the spring weather: “It feels like we’ve been getting rained on for two months just practically nonstop.” This was hardly an exaggeration. In fact, the previous 12 months (July 2018 to June 2019) were the wettest the United States has seen since record-keeping began. According to the National Climate Assessment, as temperatures continue to rise due to activities like burning fossil fuels, average precipitation will increase, resulting in even wetter springs, particularly in the Midwest. Warming temperatures have led to an upward trend in both the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events in the United States, particularly heavy downpours in the Northeast and Midwest. These localized extreme precipitation events, as well as early and rapid snow melt in March (also attributed to warming temperatures) spelled bad news for inland residents facing inundating flooding along the country’s largest rivers.

Failed infrastructure exacerbated the humanitarian and economic burdens that the floods brought to towns across the Midwest. When residents tried to return to normal life, they were further delayed by washed out roads and bridges, adding many additional miles and hours to commutes, or in some cases, trapping people in their homes. By March, more than 200 miles of state highway and 14 bridges were damaged or destroyed in Nebraska alone. Flooded towns left businesses struggling to draw in customers, who are grappling with their own income setbacks and losses.

For cities and towns struggling to respond to the devastating after-effects of major flooding, two things are crucial for building a resilient future: money and information. Vulnerable communities need access to the tools and expertise to build flood mitigation projects, paired with funding to pay for them. In 2017, FEMA dedicated $627 million in post-disaster funding for state, local, and tribal governments including flood control projects. Increased public funding for preventative community resilience projects would likely result in an overall decrease in public spending on flood disaster relief in the long term.

Coordinated green-infrastructure projects (green roofs, tree and vegetation planting, bioretention, and permeable pavement) are efficient and cost-effective solutions to managing stormwater and mitigating the scale and severity of damages from floods like these. Government funding and guidance are key to successful local implementation and will ensure reliable, long-lasting protection from future devastating floods. Connecting green infrastructure, stormwater management updates, and land conservation objectives, and coordinating their placement along floodplains or watersheds, can scale up the capacity of flood mitigation while also ensuring new development avoids the highest-risk areas. The Capital Region Watershed District in Ramsey County, Minnesota successfully reduced flooding and improved water quality through green solutions at a lower cost than the traditional, or gray infrastructure, alternative. Accompanied by stormwater infrastructure updates, green infrastructure can mitigate flood risk from both extreme precipitation and rising rivers and widescale deployment can avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in flood losses.

Local leaders must have access to comprehensive information from federal agencies, universities, and other sources about economically and technically feasible ways to boost the resilience of their individual communities. For example, making a common framework for green infrastructure widely accessible would enhance the ability of mayors to quickly and effectively implement these approaches in their own vulnerable cities and towns. Federal or state funding that incentivizes (instead of punishing) creativity and experimentation with resilience pilot projects can support engineers and city officials interested in innovative resilience solutions.

As the climate continues to warm and we see more and more rain, developing resilient and adaptable community plans and infrastructure will ensure reliable and lasting protection from future devastating floods for increasingly susceptible Midwestern communities.