Let It Flow, Let It Flow, Let It Flow: Nature-based solutions for Mississippi River flooding

In 1927, we panicked. People living along the Mississippi River experienced the ‘Great Flood’ that left almost one million Americans without food, clean drinking water, jobs, homes, or even a way out. Many people—especially African Americans—were stranded, displaced, or left for dead. It was a disaster, both naturally and administratively.

The manmade levee system along the river could not hold back the heavy rains, eventually collapsing almost entirely and submerging some communities in up to 30 feet of water. The solution at the time: build more levees. Almost 100 years later, we are facing the consequences of those decisions—including the recent ‘Great Flood’ of 2019.

Levees, locks, dams, and culverts are types of ‘grey infrastructure.’ They are manmade systems meant to constrict and control the flow of water for human purposes. The problem: water does not want to be controlled. The Mississippi River has made its own decisions for the last 5 million years and will continue to do so. It is up to us to work with the river, not against it. Research shows that nature-based solutions are the answer.

Floodplains, riparian buffers, and wetlands can restore the natural hydrology of water, naturally clean the water of pollutants, and act as natural storage areas for overflow water. These solutions decrease unintentional flooding by intentionally allowing the river to divert water as needed. They are also cost-effective in the long-term.

Grey infrastructure maintenance is expensive and can create a debt market, particularly for economically-disadvantaged communities that must take out municipal bonds to pay for repairs and upkeep. Nature-based solutions, on the other hand, only require the upfront cost of reconverting the natural landscape, after which they are self-sustaining systems with minimal maintenance.

Mimicking nature is our best solution to mitigate the growing effects of climate change on flood issues. This is a delicate balance, of course. We need to consider solutions that alleviate flooding and restore wetlands while allowing farmers to keep their lands agriculturally productive. Convincing Mississippi River farmers and other landowners to adapt a portion of their lands will require incentives and other economic benefits, along with transparent research and data to back up green infrastructure solutions.

A Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative would establish the funding and research centers to drive innovative, cost-effective, and long-term nature-based solutions to flooding along the Mississippi River. It would make sure a large portion of funding goes specifically to economically-disadvantaged communities and communities of color to aid with nature-based solutions; and it would create a sustainable future for the entirety of the Mississippi River.

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