It's hard to think of a name more fitting than Watertown for a
city routinely doused by a river, but that was small comfort this
past April to citizens of the South Dakota town as they sandbagged
their homes and watched water rise in their basements. Watertown
suffered in the 1997 flood, too, when 5,000 of the town's 20,000
residents had to evacuate and floodwaters caused millions of dollars
The irony is that after fiercely debating the question, Watertown
voters had twice rejected proposals to build a large dam about six
miles north of town, a dam that proponents said would prevent future
floods. In both 1994 and 1998, city voters had been swayed by arguments
made by upriver landowners that straightening the Big Sioux River
as it passes through Watertown would eliminate 40 percent of the
flooding problems, and that a network of small dams in the watershed
would stop the rest.
But the flood of 2001 apparently changed the tide of voter sentiment:
On July 31, by a 4-3 margin, the electorate voted to build the big
dam, an earthen structure that would hold up to 44,000 acre-feet
of water. At well over $20 million, the dam won't be cheap, but
local leaders are counting on federal funding to make it happen.
Whether the dam will actually be built, however, and whether it
will truly eliminate the problem or simply shift it off onto someone
else, remains uncertain. Opponents promise to block the project
and argue that there are more effective solutions that don't involve
taking land away from farmers for dam construction. "If the city
would clean up its act, stop building in the floodplain and straighten
their river out," Joe Stein, a big dam opponent, told the Sioux
Falls Argus Leader, "we could all get along."
Getting along isn't easy these days, it seems, if you live in a
floodplain or upstream from one. Flood fights like that in Watertown
are bitter and the bitterness endures for decades. Regrettably,
such disputes are also plentiful. A partial list of similar conflicts
now under way in the Ninth District include the Devils Lake project
in northern North Dakota; a plan for a Lake Traverse dam south of
Wahpeton, N.D.; a proposed floodway near Ortonville, Minn., that
would affect the downstream cities of Granite Falls and Montevideo;
and farmers north of Sioux Falls, S.D., asking for relief from city
floodgates which they claim back water up onto their landnot
to mention the controversy over the proposed Maple River Dam near
In these cases and others, people who are tired of dealing with
too much water want to build (or destroy) drains, ditches, dams,
levees or floodwalls so that water will go elsewhere. And often,
the water that now ends up in their field, yard or living room got
there because somebody else years before tried to eliminate their
own water problem. "It's the haves and the have-nots," observed
Gale Selken, a dam engineer with the South Dakota Department of
Environment and Natural Resources. "'I live on a hill. I don't care
if you flood.' [or] 'Well, I live in the bottom, and your tax money
is going to support me.' That's what it boils down to."
It's a conflict that pits upstream against downstream, city vs.
country, urbanite fighting the farmer. And so the struggle inevitably
involves power and moneypolitics and economics.
Of course, flood politics have existed since animals jockeyed
for ramp position on their way to the ark. And floods themselves
are a natural forcerivers climb their banks and switch channels
when they please. Lake levels rise and fall with the earth's hydrologic
pulse. But when humans decide to live and work on those shifting
shoresas we inevitably do, like moths drawn to flamethen
we call for flood control. And when control fails, we cry out for
A watershed moment
Flood control has long been a national concern, but flood disaster
relief became a federal issue with the Great Flood of 1927. In April
that year, the Mississippi River broke through levees built by the
Army Corps of Engineers to contain the river and promote agriculture.
The floodwaters submerged an area roughly the size of New England,
minus Maine, up to a depth of 30 feet. Flooding affected states
from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania, but the real disaster hit on the
lower Mississippi, from Cairo, Ill., down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Nearly a million people were made homeless and hundreds were killed.
It was a national tragedythe country's largest flood disasterbut
the federal government, whose crippled levees were widely blamed
for the disaster because they'd created a false sense of security
for those residing behind them, didn't pay a cent for relief of
its victims. Instead, local churches organized clothing drives.
The Red Cross fed nearly 700,000 refugees for months.
The public said that these local relief efforts weren't enough:
The nation should help. And historians would later call the flood
"a watershed moment" in national psychology. Before it, local communities
and states took all responsibility for flood relief. After 1927,
the onus shifted to the federal government, not just to prevent
floods, but also to bail out their victims.
Since 1927, then, the federal government has poured billions of
dollars into flood relief, primarily through the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) and its predecessor agencies. Economic
historians point out that this transition from local to national
responsibility in turn created what economists call "moral hazard,"
the sense that local communities would henceforth take greater risks
relative to flooding than they otherwise would haveallowing
more development on the floodplain, for examplejust as a homeowner
might be less careful about fire hazards if an insurance company
is going to reimburse him if his home burns up.
And in the hope that another disastrous flood could be prevented,
the federal governmentthrough the corpsalso redoubled
its efforts to control the nation's rivers, supplementing repaired
levees with large dams and reservoirs meant to retard water flow
and floodway channels that provide controlled outlets for high waters.
But the problem has not diminished.
In fact, flood losses in the United States steadily escalated during
the 20th century. One analysis says that from 1916 to 1985 per capita
flood damage in the United States increased by a factor of 2.5 in
constant dollars. Another estimate of total flood losses puts the
current figure at over $6 billion annually, a fourfold increase
(in constant dollars) since the early 1900s. Another way to look
at the trend: Between 1960 and 1985, while the federal government
spent $38 billion on flood control, average annual flood damages
(adjusted for inflation) more than doubled.
The amount of federal funds spent on disaster relief is huge. Between
1977 and 1993, according to a 1998 General Accounting Office analysis,
federal agencies spent nearly $120 billion on federal disaster assistance,
much of it for flood disasters. Nearly three-quarters of the total
went to post-disaster recovery. Twenty-one percent of the total
was spent on dams and levees, and 5 percent was spent on disaster
preparation and response. Just 2 percent of the total went to proactive
efforts to prevent future disasters.
The failure of flood control and flood relief to stem the tide
became woefully obvious with the Midwest flood of 1993, a disaster
that cost the nation as much as $16 billion. After reviewing the
1993 flood in the context of the country's painful history of flood
control efforts, a presidential advisory committee issued a report
in July 1994 that called for a full-scale overhaul of U.S. flood
management policy. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana became a chief advocate
for the committee's recommendations, stopping legislation that would
have funded dozens of old-line flood control initiatives. "Before
we authorize even more projects," he said, "we must begin to change
our flood policies ... that often impose the very solutions that
contribute to our problems."
The emerging perspective suggested that we should rely less on
structural flood controldams, levees and the likesince
they couldn't provide total safety and might actually increase risk
by giving false reassurance to homeowners and businesses who locate
behind their protective walls.
It recommended that people and their structures be moved from
the floodplainsthe areas of highest riskso that they
would not need to be rescued and rebuilt after each successive disaster.
It proposed increased reliance on nonstructural solutions, such
as restoring wetlands that could act as natural sponges, absorbing
excess waters and slowing torrential rains from reaching the river.
And it suggested improvements in risk and responsibility management,
pushing residents in floodplains to buy flood insurance and implementing
zoning regulations and building codes that would protect against
repeated damages in future floods.
Since that time, some government agencies at local, state and federal
levels have moved to enact some of these measures. Davenport, Iowa,
for example, decided to not build a floodwall to hold the river
away from their city and instead built a park on the floodplain.
Federal and state monies have gone toward wetlands restoration.
In Austin, Minn., 163 homes were moved off the Minnesota River's
floodplain, with financial support from FEMA. And federal flood
insurance regulations were tightened to encourage more people to
carry it so more structures would be protected.
But implementation of these measures has been spotty, at bestlimited
by lack of funding and political will. And in the Ninth District,
as elsewhere, building dams in order to stop floods remains the
default choice, a popular remedy chosen by decision-makers in part
because it seems an immediate, tangible fix and in part because
federal funds subsidize the expense.