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“Plan H” Opposition Illustrates Difficulties of New Management Approaches

August 19, 2011Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on “Plan H” Opposition Illustrates Difficulties of New Management Approaches

Throughout the Missouri and Mississippi River floodplains this year, disastrous floods have led to calls for “new ways of doing things.”  Some see the solution as just “fixing” the way we try to manage these rivers now, as if humans ultimately will be able to manage rivers as great as the Missouri and the Mississippi. (Editorial opinion:  We won’t; rivers always win.)

Other voices, though, have taken the occasion these floods to call for re-thinking our whole relations with rivers.  “Room for the River,” an innovative management philosophy from the Netherlands, has been mentioned by groups such as American Rivers as a possible model.

As you might expect, there are also a lot of people looking at some sort of middle ground.  But as this article from MSNBC.com illustrates, even achieving limited alterations in processes as complex as flood management on large rivers is controversial.  After a study process that has encompassed decades, and considered nearly 2 dozen alternatives, the Corps of Engineers has settled on “Plan H” as the best approach to managing floods on the Mississippi north of St. Louis.  This plan calls for the introduction of three new flood zones where waters from extraordinarily high flood events would be allowed to flow, relieving pressure on the system as a whole.  In the Mississippi Delta this spring, a similar approach saw dynamiting of a levee in southeastern Missouri, and opening of floodgates at two places in Louisiana, all to reduce the threat of flooding in New Orleans.

And we can predict the result:  residents of the three (3!) counties affected have mobilized in opposition to “Plan H” and have marshalled bipartisan opposition to this alternative.  It’s probably just as well:  last I looked there was significant opposition to large new federal investments in things like flood control.

But the broader point is clear:  New ways to manage big rivers are going to be complex, controversial, and time-consuming.  Here’s hoping that smart people will use sound information and inclusive public processes to get it right.

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