Mississippi River Basin adapts as climate change brings extreme rain and flooding
After a torrential downpour began on Aug. 7, the Pecatonica River jumped its banks in Freeport, Ill. and flooded the basement of Laurie Thomas' family home, nearly to the ceiling.
This latest was Freeport's fifth major flood in just the past four years. Thomas and her mother have experienced flooding at least 15 times in the past 20 years.
Climate change is intensifying hurricanes and triggering sea-level rise along the coast, but it's also bringing more rainfall and frequent flooding to inland river communities. While some parts of the Mississippi River basin experienced drought conditions this year, others had to deal with extreme rain.
Flash flooding in St. Louis broke a century-old rainfall record this summer. Increased rainfall overwhelmed the main water treatment facility in Jackson, Mississippi. Historic flooding left eastern Kentucky communities decimated and searching for protection against climate change.
U.S. infrastructure wasn't designed for this climate-fueled extreme weather. It's causing economic strain, impacting quality of life, and forcing people to make hard decisions about whether to stay or leave.
Last year, the city of Freeport, with over $3 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, launched a program to buy and remove homes along the river and return the land to floodplains. City officials say that the average home on the east side, the historically Black part of town, is valued at around $15,000. Homeowners can be offered up to an additional $31,000.
Thomas says that's just not enough money for her mother to pick up and start over elsewhere. She, and some neighbors, would rather take their chances with the river.
"People have always lived over here and there's always been the Pecatonica [River], but lately the floods, they've been worse," Thomas says. "But they've been worse everywhere else too. That's not a reason to kick people out of their homes."
Buyout or not, adapting to increased rainfall and flooding in the region will mean transforming river communities, like Freeport. But for these efforts to succeed, they'll need support and substantial resources. Otherwise, families like Thomas' will continue to opt out altogether.
When it rains, it pours
The Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk – a journalism partnership that includes more than 14 newsrooms – asked climate data nonprofit Climate Central to analyze 50 years of rainfall patterns, using data from the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Findings show that the eastern half of the U.S. is getting far wetter on average, with some areas – including parts of the Mississippi River basin – now receiving up to 8 more inches of rain each year than 50 years ago.
"Climate change models show further increases are likely in coming years," said Climate Central data scientist Jen Brady, who helped with the analysis.
And when it rains, it pours, based on rainfall intensity data. Not only has the average yearly rainfall increased in parts of the basin, but it's also falling harder in many places, according to the Climate Central analysis.
The trend is largely tied to heat, according to Pat Guinan, Missouri's state climatologist and a professor at the University of Missouri. As greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels heat the Earth, that warming extends to the oceans and the Gulf of Mexico — a primary source of the atmospheric moisture for the Eastern U.S. Warming oceans produce more water vapor, and a warming atmosphere can hold more moisture, which can then deliver more precipitation in short windows of time.
"We're getting warmer and we're getting wetter," said Guinan. "We are in an unprecedented wet period."
Guinan said recent decades have given rise to a stark divide seen across the continental U.S., with the western half of the country becoming increasingly arid and prone to drought, while the eastern half is faced with exceptional moisture, often delivered in bursts.
Making room for the river
The western border of Atchison County, Mo., follows the twisting path of the Missouri River, which is part of the Mississippi River Basin. Acres of corn and soy fields once lined its shores, but after a nearby levee suffered seven breaches in the Flood of 2019, the cropland was ruined.
Instead of rebuilding the levee and replanting the crops, Atchison County decided to let the floodplain be a floodplain. The local levee board proposed a setback, moving one of the levees that breached back and restoring the area to floodplain. Knee-high prairie grass now covers the open space, providing a greener, more sustainable form of flood control.
"It's nuts how bad things were," said Regan Griffin, a local farmer and Atchison Levee Board member. "Here we are, everything's growing back already."
With rivers pushed to the brink, municipalities have struggled to keep their residents safe. Many across the basin — like Atchison — are shifting away from traditional mitigation tactics, such as levees and berms, to make room for the water instead.
"The old way isn't working for today's population. That has resulted in rethinking the engineering solution versus a new look at the role nature can play," said Laura Lightbody, project director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Flood-Prepared Communities project.
Research has found that these solutions successfully mitigate flooding. Proactive buyouts provide permanent solutions for communities in harm's way. When paired with those buyouts, levee setbacks reduced flood risks in every studied scenario in the Mississippi River. The resulting floodplains offer opportunities for recreation, ecotourism and increased ecosystem services.
"There's more and more research that's making it more compelling...and it's often less costly," Lightbody said. "I think that's why we're seeing more of it."
However, infrastructure updates are also expensive, and many small towns lack the capital.
Congress has slowly begun to direct agencies to craft programs that offer communities more support. For instance, in 2020, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) launched the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program geared toward funding locally-led projects that fortify areas before disasters strike. This October, FEMA will have $2.3 billion for such projects — a windfall compared to past years, but still a fraction of the $460 billion spent on disaster response between 2005 and 2019.
So far, inland Mississippi River communities have received a smaller percentage of BRIC dollars than coastal states, according to a Headwaters Economics analysis.
Eric Letvin, FEMA's Deputy Assistant Administrator for Mitigation, said the agency was working to make the money more accessible to small towns like those in the river basin.
"Some states have more hazard mitigation staff than others and are able to help provide more assistance and help generate applications," he said.
But Pew's Lightbody says communities need to come up with local solutions as well. As she sees it, the federal government just doesn't have enough money.
"They don't have the resources to fully rebuild communities time and time again," says Lightbody.
It's not clear how river communities will look a century from now. But most experts agree: Change is necessary to create a better and safer future. Levees and floodwalls alone aren't working anymore. Flood risk will continue to increase, and communities will need to make room for the water. And the time to act is now, instead of waiting for the next flood.
Bryce Gray (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), Connor Giffin (Louisville Courier Journal), Halle Parker (WWNO-New Orleans Public Radio) and Brittney J. Miller (The Gazette of Cedar Rapids) contributed reporting. This story was adapted from a series by the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, which is based at the University of Missouri, in partnership with Report for America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, funded by the Walton Family Foundation. contributed to this story
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