Michael Reuter is The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Freshwater in North America and leads the Great Rivers Partnership globally. He lives in Peoria, Illinois and has worked on the Illinois River for more than 20 years.
In the city of Peoria this week, the scene is dire. The central Illinois community where I live is experiencing some of the worst flooding in its history, with the Illinois River reaching a record high, swamping businesses and homes.
The scenario, documented by our staff and friends in photos below, is becoming all too common.
In just the last two years, we’ve had three record-breaking floods — the Mississippi, the Missouri and now the Illinois. So-called “100-year floods” are happening more often, with climate studies predicting more frequent and severe events like this. Floods are among the most expensive natural disasters, resulting in billions of dollars of damages in the United States every year.
To prevent this hardship and loss, a new approach is necessary that reduces losses while improving the health of great rivers like the Illinois. But achieving these kinds of win-win outcomes requires that we supplement our standard approach to floods. We need to start being proactive rather than reactive when it comes to investing in flood management.
The Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve is an example of how this can be done. At Emiquon, we are focused on developing and maintaining critical fish and wildlife habitat, but that’s not all. Part of our plan will be to provide room for the river to help curtail damages during major floods. Every flood is different, but in general by allowing floodwaters to spread out onto this vast area, Emiquon can help lower flood levels in nearby communities, including Peoria some 40 miles upstream.
Even a few inches can prevent millions of dollars in damages, but ultimately additional floodplain areas along the Illinois and other rivers are needed, and they would have to be operated within a well-engineered plan. Farsighted public policies would provide fair economic incentives to those farmers and landowners who want to be part of the solution, potentially saving taxpayers substantial money.
There is a pay off: A study by the National Institute of Building Sciences estimated that for every dollar we spend on hazard mitigation efforts, we can save $4 in future damages.
The Nature Conservancy’s hope at Emiquon is to demonstrate the importance of functional floodplains and encourage more projects of this type. Indeed, such replication is essential not only for the health of the Illinois River, but also for the reduction of flood risk over the longer.
For more information about floodplains and The Nature Conservancy, visit nature.org/floodplains.
[Images courtesy of Jay Harrod and Randy Rudin]