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Floodplain to see: We need solutions

A broad shot flooding as historic crest came Wednesday Illinois River upstream Havana.
Credit: Dale Bowman

A broad shot of the flooding as the historic crest came Wednesday on the Illinois River upstream of Havana. Credit: Dale Bowman

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Updated: May 29, 2013 7:53AM

CANTON, Ill. — As I drove home, I swerved by American coots swimming between red cones marking the top of backed-up Duck Creek, which spilled onto the blacktop of Route 24.

All kinds of oddities showed as a historic flood rolled down the Illinois River. I had a chance to be there as the crest passed from Peoria toward Havana.

The Nature Conservancy used a Eurocopter, offered by farmer/businessman Rick Studer, to survey the Illinois River around TNC’s prime backwater restoration project at Emiquon Preserve.

A historic flood like the one this month is a teachable moment. TNC folks are smart enough and equipped enough to make use of prime time.

It’s a discussion we damn sure have to have: about dams, floodplains, hydrology and impervious urban surfaces; about the economics of flood damage and flood insurance vs. the economics of better floodplain management.

Floodwaters did their thing.

As I came off Interstate 474 to Route 24, I worried about the big dip, but the road was open. Wooden yellow barricades prevented access to side streets.

That drive southwest on 24 was different. The water to the left was miles wide. The water spread inland, even past 24.

This is a flood for the memories of a lifetime.

Or is it?

So many major floods have come in the last couple of decades, especially on the Illinois River, that the term ‘‘a 100-year flood’’ is meaningless.

As we waited in Canton Ingersoll Airport for Studer to pick us up, Jay Harrod laid out ideas. As TNC’s communications lead for the North America Freshwater Priority, he has been heavily involved in floodplain discussions. He constructed a very accessible online video at
. It outlines the ideas of better, and viable, floodplain management.

Floodplains naturally spread floods out, diffuse their power and enrich river bottoms. However, those rich river bottoms drew farmers. Other people followed, building in floodplains. Levees were built high to contain the flood waters. That works to a degree, until the arrival of catastrophic floods.

The more logical approach would be a mix of setting levees back (then paying farmers to farm that land inside the levees when not flooded) and installing floodgates with controlled paths for floods in catastrophic events like this year. Projects like Emiquon could be part of the answer.

It’s in the idea stage. Farming flood land is not easy. Water is heavy and compacts soil, making it difficult to work. Floods leave land littered with debris, requiring much work.

Somebody needs to work a statistical model to see if paying farmers for their work would be cheaper than subsidizing flood insurance and paying the billions for flood cleanup.

Even as Studer flew us over the flooded area outside of Emiquon Preserve and the flooded homes of Liverpool, the extent of the flooding was hard to grasp.

‘‘Our goal is to demonstrate floodplain restoration,’’ said Michael Reuter, director of the North America Freshwater Program and the Great Rivers Partnership. ‘‘These floods demonstrate the need for the [changes].’’

From the air, the breaches of levees looked like trickles. But after we landed, Reuter led us to the Thompson Levee on the south side of Emiquon. Up close, the power of breaches is spooky. I mean spooky, as if a powerful evil lurked on the flood side of the 30-foot levee.

Walking down to take a photo from the bottom of a breach, I was surprised how soft the levee was. Reuter said that’s a problem in these situations. Becoming soft, levees are more vulnerable to further problems when breaches begin.

Harrod, in rubber boots, waded out into the middle of the breach, set his tripod in the water, then videoed it.

It was time.

It is time for a major, long-term discussion.

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