Less Flood Damage

By re-plumbing the Upper Mississippi River system with dams, levees, and deep channels, we’ve lost the rich floodplain wetlands that once held seasonal deluges. Instead, we now face excessive flooding resulting in billions of dollars in damage annually, not to mention the loss of life that often occurs during serious flood events.

An Illinois farm swept by floodwaters.

Restoring wetlands could help. Wetlands function like natural sponges, storing water and slowly releasing it. This process slows the water’s momentum, reduces its erosive potential, lowers flood heights, and gives freshwater aquifers the opportunity to recharge. When wetlands store and then slowly release floodwaters, damage to life and property is lessened.

A 2004 study by the Wetlands Initiative estimated that 4 million acres of restored floodplain wetlands in the Upper Mississippi River Basin could significantly increase flood storage in the region, though such a large amount of restoration would require major changes to current land use and subsidy practices that are beyond the ken of any single organization. Rather than paying landowners to recover from damage after flooding, it would be necessary to develop mechanisms to pay landowners to reconnect to the floodplain and receive floodwaters. In some spots urban or residential development in floodplain areas would not be allowed to continue. The TWI study concluded that there could actually be a net economic benefit from converting low-producing cropland in the floodplain back to wetland flood storage.

These strategies may seem improbable now, but as serious flood events increase in the Upper Midwest—and the associated personal and economic costs also increase—the motivation to restore wetlands on a grand scale may begin to seem reasonable indeed.

Click here to read TWI’s 2004 study on reducing flood damage through wetland restoration

Click here to read National Geographic’s 2011 article on wetland restoration and floodplain reactivation