As he watched the river forecasts in early 2019, Regan Griffin hoped for the best.
Maybe the Missouri River would top its levees in a few places but spare his community.
That year turned out to be one of the most severe floods in recent memory. Parts of Atchison County, where Griffin lives, were under water for eight months. The river breached levees in dozens of places, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
For decades leading up to that flood, Griffin said, officials repeatedly built back levees — flood after flood.
“I think for a lot of folks, they felt, ‘We gave up the ground to build the levee and we don’t want to give up any more ground,’ ” he said.
But after 2019, residents of Atchison County started looking at other options.
So last year, Atchison County Levee District No. 1 embarked on a levee “setback.” The community yielded more than 1,000 acres of private and public land to the Missouri River, moving the levee farther from the river’s banks and giving it room to swell during rainy years without overtopping the levees and overtaking farmers’ land.
“Especially (after) two major floods in the last 10 years, we are kind of tired of seeing this happen,” Griffin said. “It really ruins farm ground. It really messes up people’s lives.”
Historically, the Missouri River, the longest in North America, meandered across a wide path and floodplains. Its watershed encompasses one-sixth of the United States, according to a report from American Rivers, a nonprofit dedicated to river conservation.
But over decades, the river became one of the most “altered” in the nation, and in parts, is severely constrained.
For that reason, American Rivers named the Missouri one of the nation’s most endangered rivers of 2021.
“The lower Missouri River from Sioux City to St. Louis is artificially confined by hundreds of miles of levees that have destroyed the dynamic features of the river, including side channels, chutes, shallow and slack water areas, sandbars and islands,” the report says, adding that ensuing habitat loss led to multiple animal species being listed as endangered.
This year, American Rivers deemed the Snake River in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, as America’s most endangered river because of four dams that have altered the river’s path and destroyed salmon habitat.
Missouri is second on the list.
Problem ‘for a long, long time’
According to the report, dams and levees constructed to control the flow of the river and prevent flooding have the opposite effect. And the river is constrained to a narrower path, in many places, than is allowed by law. Now, when it floods, the Missouri consistently overtops or breaches its levees — often repeatedly at the same points on the river.
Griffin said a levee in the northern part of Atchison County has broken during every flood since 1993.
“If changes are not made in how the Missouri River is managed, areas along the river will continue to experience flood damage and taxpayer dollars will be used to repeatedly rebuild the same levees,” the report says.
The solution, the report says, lies in projects like the one Griffin and neighbors undertook in Atchison County. That gives the river more room to flood surrounding areas safely without spilling onto farmland as the Missouri has done repeatedly in recent years. Right now, the levees are too close to the river’s banks in many places.
“This has been a recognized problem for a long, long time,” said Caroline Pufalt, of the Missouri River Network.
As climate change causes more intense rainy weather, Pufalt said, it’s even more important to find ways to mitigate flooding.
The recent catastrophic floods have taken a toll on Griffin’s farms and surrounding communities. One of Griffin’s family farms in the northern part of the county sits right next to a levee that broke in 2019. Even in 2020, months after the floodwaters receded, the land was damaged to the point that he couldn’t plant corn and soybeans.
“This farm had huge ruts that were probably 40 or 50 feet deep where the river just channeled through there and then sand deposits where it looked like a big beach,” Griffin said.
That farm, he said, will be replanted this year for the first time since the 2019 floods, which wiped out half his farms’ revenues for the year.
Such severe flooding, he said, has made landowners along that stretch of the Missouri more amenable to levee setbacks.
But both he and the American Rivers report said levee districts and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tend toward building back levees again and again, rather than make a more dramatic, long-term change.
Griffin said levee setback projects are expensive. A factsheet about the project compiled by the Nature Conservancy pegs the budget at $61 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.
Griffin said he hopes the project can be a model for other communities hit hard by river floods.
“I do think there are areas that it would benefit people to do a setback,” he said, “to say, ‘Let’s not just keep having these floods every five or 10 or 15 years, but to fix the issues, the more systemic, permanent issues that are there.’ ”
This story was produced by the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy.