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Proposed fed policies seek to limit flooding on Red and Mississippi rivers

Flooding in Moorhead, March 2009
MinnPost photo by Scott Theisen
High water along the Red River near Moorhead earlier this year. A White House plan would strengthen federal floodplain policies.

How Minnesota deals with high water on the Red and Mississippi rivers comes under consideration in a White House plan to strengthen federal policies limiting construction in floodplains.

The draft plan, which is not yet an executive order, would toughen standards written by the Carter administration in 1977 but largely ignored since. The proposal (PDF) notes “floods have caused a greater loss of life and property and have devastated more families and communities in the United States than all other natural hazards.”

Changes would include requiring federal agencies to look for “practical alternatives” to building on a floodplain. Instead of constructing levees and other flood protection structures, the proposal asks for agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use “nonstructural approaches” such as zoning laws and building codes to manage the system.

Among the structures that would be banned in 500-year floodplains are so-called “critical facilities” such as hospitals, police and fire stations, and power plants.

Ceil Strauss, who works on the issue for the DNR, told me much of the draft incorporates Minnesota’s current practices. “That proposed language would support what we’ve been doing … but really wouldn’t mean any changes that I can see due to our current state laws for floodplain management and environmental review,” Strauss said.

In Minnesota law, the floodplain is considered to be the land adjoining lakes and rivers that is covered in a 100-year flood. (A 100-year flood has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.) According to the DNR, these have recently occurred statewide in 1965, 1969, 1997 and 2001, and regionally in 1972, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1987 and 1993.

Federal projects only
It is important to note that the draft order, if implemented, would only apply to federal projects. Much flood control work is the responsibility of state, local and tribal governments, although the federal government can use the power of its purse to influence local endeavors.

The Council on Environmental Quality would assume some of the power now held by the Corps and others. That bothers Amy Larson, president of the National Waterways Conference, which represents industry. She worries that not all stakeholders are being heard from. “Our concern is that this proposal would have binding obligations without [the usual] public notice and comment,” she told me. “It’s being vetted internally.” One of the comment periods, for example, was from July 1-17, which included the long Fourth of July holiday.

At the other end of the issue, Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, told Greenwire: “You still go out and find post offices being built in floodplains. Where’s the cheapest land? It’s in the high-hazard area.”

There has been no word from the White House on a timetable for turning the draft into an executive order.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 07/24/2009 - 09:28 am.

    Just a thought are there any more rivers or lakes up north that could take on higher water levels in the spring or early June? I know a cabin we used to use that it’s lake had a small dam that could in essence take on a 4 foot higher level. Also with the recent droughts in western Wisconsin the Namekagon/ St. Croix (upper) is becoming less canoeable. I know the Zumbro river north of Rochester controls the water flowage so there is more current on weekends.

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