It’s startling to hear Platte County locations mentioned in the national news by familiar journalistic voices. As the Missouri River flood crest moved downstream last week, the news desk anchors on National Public Radio mentioned Parkville several times as they gave Midwestern flooding updates. National media covered this weather-triggered event more thoroughly than we’re accustomed to in the heartland.
Of course, water flowing over levees and sandbag lines into towns and through farms makes good video and audio. The action, drama, heartbreak and heroics play well on television, a website or on a cell phone.
Cleanup gets less coverage because it’s tedious, unpleasant and flood victims are emotionally exhausted. Somebody else’s problem, you might think. Such floods are odd because the relatively small number of people living in flooded areas of Platte County, or those who farm there, are dealing with a wrenching and potentially life-changing event. Yet, most county residents live on high ground and spent the flood event wondering how their bracket predictions would fair in the NCAA basketball tournament. But even if you live on the high ground, your tax dollars are at stake in how government aids flooded areas and how federal money will be spent to manage the river in the future.
What gets even weaker coverage regarding Missouri River flooding are all causes and what changes can be made to mitigate flooding in the future. Heavy rains and snow melt, a large and unrelenting storm weather pattern, are an immediate answer to why. It’s an accurate answer, too. Our travel by car and airplane, or virtual life via a digital device, distorts our vantage point on just how big this country is. Our predecessors in the mid-1800s who embarked from Weston and walked the Oregon Trail to the west coast had a clear idea of immensity. Our view is limited. The fact is, if you pour a lot of moisture quickly over a broad area of the vast Missouri River basin, you’re going to get a flood downstream.
Nature’s work on a planetary scale is still more powerful than the hand of man.
But factors beyond weather are in play, too. We’re continually adding more concrete and asphalt in urban areas and beyond, which sends water into streams faster. Many farm crop fields are underlain by drainage tile systems to keep too much water during wet periods from hindering plant growth and grain production. Tile systems allow water to enter streams faster than if runoff was moving through soil and natural rivulets and creeks. Many small streams and creeks have been straightened or moved against a hill or bluff in order to make crop farming easier. Take out the meanders and bends, and water flows faster from one stream to the next. We’ve drained vast acres of wetlands that originally held water to create crop fields. These are not the only causes of a major flood such as this, but they contribute.
As levees overflow or break, remember that agriculture and urban interests have during the past century applied political and legal pressure to have those levees built as close to the main Missouri River channel as possible. That added farming ground but reduced flood plain for the river to use during epic weather events. Thus more water pressure against those levees. And those levees vary in size, ownership and management responsibilities. But your tax dollars helped build many of them.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is taking criticism for flood damage along the Missouri River. Even though much of the storm water came from areas that don’t drain into the big reservoirs. Meanwhile, the Corps has to answer to numerous powerful interests. Mississippi River barge interests, and somewhat the barely-breathing Missouri River barge industry, want water held in upstream reservoirs for release during the summer shipping season. Their political power over congress is as potent as downstream agriculture interests that would like low reservoirs levels during winter just in case a flood comes in spring. Then there’s the economically valuable recreation interests tied to reservoirs in the Dakotas and Montana. The Corps holds regular public meetings yearly, by the way, including often near or in Platte County. Watch their website if you’d like to attend. You’ll see dedicated government employees fielding pressure from multiple directions.
Flood damage is found where weather overlaps with choices made by people. Water flowing in the Missouri River basin after a weather event is guided in its path by eons of geologic carving and structures built during the last century by humans. Those structures involve politics, narrow economic interests and wishful thinking.