Natural Solutions for an Unnatural Disaster

A blueprint for strengthening nature's defenses to better protect people and communities along the Mississippi River

05-18-2011 // Mekell Mikell

As the catastrophic Mississippi River flooding unfolds like a slow-motion train wreck, the first priorities of the federal, state, and local government are to prevent loss of life, minimize property damage and assist those in need with all resources possible. When the waters recede, it will be important to ask some tough questions. Was this truly a natural disaster or one that was caused (or at least exacerbated) by government policies? What pragmatic steps can be taken now and in the years ahead to better prepare and protect people and communities from future storms and floods? 

Bonnet Carre opening the spillway

In a new report, the National Wildlife Federation has identified five ways government policies and practices are contributing to the extraordinary flooding and resulting impacts, as well as five specific recommendations to help policymakers avoid and minimize catastrophes like this.

Each of our recommendations has one thing in common – they promote the protection and restoration of natural defenses that are so critical to a safe, affordable and sustainable flood protection system. We recognize that levees, dams and other structural solutions will continue to play a role in flood protection and navigation, but the time has come for a more balanced approach that recognizes and utilizes the natural defenses afforded by healthy wetlands, floodplains and even farmland.

Download the full report: Mississippi River Flooding: Natural Solutions for an Unnatural Disaster (pdf).

Recommendations to Protect Communities and Reduce Flood Damages

  • Floodplain development
    According to David Muth, Louisiana state director for the National Wildlife Federation, “restoration of the Mississippi River floodplain and delta ecosystems will reduce flood threats to communities, improve opportunities for commercial uses of the river, and save the American taxpayers billions in the long run.”
  • Modernize Federal Water Policy Guidelines
    "The Administration could make a real difference for Mississippi River communities by releasing new water resources planning guidelines that use natural solutions to maximize flood protection and minimize human suffering," said Melissa Samet, senior water resources council for the National Wildlife Federation. "With the right guidelines in place, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies can help revitalize communities devastated by flooding and better manage water projects along the Mississippi River and throughout the country."
  • Protect Wetlands and Streams from Development
    "Rivers like the Mississippi flood worst where unwise planning, engineering and political decisions have been made," said Dr. Nicholas Pinter, professor of Geology at Southern Illinois University. "A vital first step in improving U.S. river management is to require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use the best available science in planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of river projects."
  • Reduce Carbon Pollution
    To avoid increased damage from heavy intense rainfall events and other impacts of human-caused climate change, Americans must begin taking steps to reduce carbon pollution.

"In the 20th century, we built a system of levees and other flood control structures on the Mississippi River that gave a false sense of security to communities on the river," said John Kostyack, vice president of wildlife conservation for the National Wildlife Federation. "Now, we have an opportunity to provide real security to millions of people by using wetlands, floodplains and other "natural defenses" to buffer communities from flood waters."

Restoring our natural defenses would reduce the pressure on levees and risk to communities, while sustaining and renewing the River's floodplain, rebuilding the delta's wetlands, and improving the health of the entire Mississipppi Basin for our generation and generations to come.

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