Amid flooding, debate begins on whether failed levees should be rebuilt THE GREAT FLOOD OF 1993

July 18, 1993|By New York Times News Service

ST. LOUIS -- Even as the Mississippi River continues to swamp cropland and force thousands of people from their homes, a debate is taking shape in Washington and the Midwest over whether to rebuild the levees that have washed away or to dismantle some and use agricultural bottom lands as temporary reservoirs in future floods as would occur under natural conditions.

Two assessments by the Army Corps of Engineers, one completed almost a decade ago and one done last week for the New York Times, found that flood crests in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri would have been two to three feet lower had the river not been confined by hundreds of miles of levees up and down both sides of the Mississippi.

But the engineers who conducted the studies also asserted that the volumes of water were so great in this flood that even with levees protecting only cities, the property damage would have been just as extensive.

"I just don't see the big effect that everybody thinks," said Gary Dyhouse, the chief of the hydrology section at the Army Corps of Engineers district office here and the author of one assessment. "The levees have been breached upstream. The flood plain is full of water from bluff to bluff, in some places three and four miles across, and we are still seeing a rising crest in St. Louis."

Other experts, though, have taken issue with that analysis of the levees' influence. Dr. Charles B. Belt Jr., an associate professor of geology at St. Louis University, studied the last great flood that occurred here in 1973 and concluded that the levees pushed the flood waters eight feet higher than they would have been had there been no levees.

"The corps argues a foot is insignificant," said Dr. Belt in an interview here. "Two or three feet can mean the difference in how much property is damaged. It's a legitimate question whether the government should put more money into this system of flood protection. Should the government be subsidizing behavior that is getting more and more expensive? As a scientist, I'm not going to answer it. But as a taxpayer, I think it's a drag on the economy."

For weeks across this region where the Mississippi River has turned once-placid farm fields into huge and muddy lakes, the debate has been played out in real life. As pressure from conservation groups and others begins to mount in Washington xTC for tearing down some levees, hundreds of residents in south St. Louis and farm families in Quincy, Ill., have been making their opinions known with shovels and sandbags as they work day and night to strengthen levees protecting their property.

At issue is how to control the Mississippi. The debate will involve economic and environmental factors that played no role 65 years ago when the United States first began to develop the dams, reservoirs, and levees that transformed the Mississippi and its .. tributaries into restricted ribbons of water.

Undoing parts of that mammoth plumbing system, proponents say, would enable the country to take advantage of the river's natural system for controlling floods at much less overall cost. Levees would not have to be rebuilt at a cost of $1 million a mile or more. And flood damage in the future would be reduced, they contend. Neither the states nor the Army Corps of Engineers yet know the extent of damage to the levees and the total cost of repairing them or removing some.

Most of the levee system between St. Louis and Rock Island, Ill., the region that sustained the most damage, is owned by farmers and other private interests. The federal government, though, pays 80 percent of the cost of repairing private levees, and the decision whether to rebuild all or part of the levee system rests primarily with Congress and the Clinton administration.

Though conservationists and wildlife officials in several states have urged the government to refrain from rebuilding every levee and allow the energy of floods to dissipate over a wider expanse of land, such a departure in the government's long-standing response to flooding would also subject farmers to more frequent damage to their land.

That possibility has left farmers and their families in the Upper Mississippi Valley not only battling flood waters but also looking ahead to a political fight none say they want. In Clarksville, Mo., 40 miles north of here, one farmer, Sarah Sterne, can look from her porch on a hill and see flood water covering every square inch for miles, including almost half of her family's 1000-acre farm.

"Our family has been here farming for 50 years," she said. "We have had great benefit from these levees. It stands to reason that if you have crops planted you want to protect them. Families earn their livelihoods out there. Tearing them down or cutting holes in them? That just doesn't make much sense to me."

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