Developing Flood Solutions Along the Mississippi and Missouri River Basins

During a time of extreme rainfall patterns, river communities face unprecedented challenges. In a recent NPR article, writers Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco and Eva Tesfaye covered the flooding along the Mississippi River Basin, where IRIS researchers are looking for solutions to frequent and severe flooding caused by intensified rainfall.

Families within these communities are faced with deciding between dangerous, damaging floods, and governmental buyout offers for their homes that aren’t enough to allow them to start over in a safer place.

This problem has been intensified by outdated flood mitigation systems and a changing climate, which have led to increased development in areas of high flood risk and severe weather events that put flood mitigation systems at risk of failing.

An image of the road and levee (right), with riverward land (left) showing evidence of past floods in the form of scour holes. Photo by Matt Chambers

Communities often seek to prevent rivers from flooding by building levees. However, levees can offer a false sense of protection, causing towns to increase development and investment around the levee. This phenomenon is called the “levee effect.” However, no levee can withstand all floods—and when the river overflows the levee, flooding can cause potential loss of life, home, and livelihood.

Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems researchers have found that levee setbacks—a type of natural infrastructure that involves moving the levee away from the river, so that the river can spread out into floodplains—may hold the key to reducing flooding in more populated areas.

Graduate student Matt Chambers is working with the Atchison Levee Board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha district to help engineer solutions to flooding in the Missouri River Basin through levee setbacks.

Up to this point, Chambers had been working on developing levee setback designs and hydraulic modeling to support the project from Athens, Georgia, but last week he had the opportunity to step into the communities and project sites.

“We are working to translate what we have learned in academic studies to practice,” Chambers said of the project. “It is wonderful to work directly with the folks our research is intended to help. Their needs and the lay of the land help contextualize our solutions.”

On Tuesday, October 25th, Chambers attended a stakeholder’s workshop to present the team’s current designs to the levee board, learn more about their needs, and hear their feedback.

Chambers spoke to how important these workshops are in ensuring that their research remains grounded in the real needs of communities.  “Workshops like these provide us researchers with opportunities to understand stakeholder needs and ground our academic solutions for real communities. I’m thankful to the Corps for bringing us all together and facilitating the conversation.”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Resource Specialist in the Omaha District, David Crane, also spoke to how the work he and Chambers are doing will help communities and accelerate the field.

An image of David Crane standing in a “borrow pit,” which he designed to act like a natural wetland. Photo by Matt Chambers

“We have an opportunity here to bring all of our minds and resources together to try and help people. Regardless of whether these specific projects get implemented, this research is going to advance the field, and will eventually be used to help people in other areas.”