Coalition Report: Could We Meet Harvey in St. Louis?

By Heather Navarro
Executive Director,
Missouri Coalition
For The Environment


Warmer oceans, epic rains, and unfettered sprawl are a few of the alleged perpetrators behind the damage caused in Houston by Hurricane Harvey. How would St. Louis hold up in a similar situation? Our region is no stranger to catastrophic flooding. Like Houston, much of our region is served by a combined sewer system, prone to overflowing in periods of heavy rains. And like Houston, we have littered our floodplains with toxic threats to health and safety. Alongside our rivers, for example, we are landfilling coal ash and radioactive waste.

MCE has been publishing a newsletter, the Alert, since 1970. A few years ago, in preparation for our anniversary, I pulled out all of the old editions. In 1972, the organization cited the National Water Commission in discouraging industrial and residential development in the floodplain. In 1986, MCE highlighted the need to preserve flood storage in 1,300 acres of floodplain that was slated for industrial and commercial development. And in the fall of 1993, following massive floods, MCE called for significant changes in policy to reconnect floodplains instead of walling them off with levees.

St. Louis is getting wiser with its sewer system and we are seeing an increase in green infrastructure features, such as rain gardens and pervious pavement. However, if 9 trillion gallons of rain were to fall on St. Louis, those measures wouldn’t likely be enough.

Missouri has floodplain rivers. They need to meander and overflow in order to survive. The river and the land naturally feed one another. It is when we force the two apart that we end up with devastating floods. But floods don’t have to devastate communities. Our encroachment on floodplains causes the rivers to run faster, increases erosion, and dismantles natural flood prevention systems.

We know what the solutions are. For decades, experts have been advocating for the protection of wetlands and floodplains because these features act like sponges and reduce inundation. Investments in green infrastructure, such as wetlands and rain gardens will help to minimize flooding devastation. A recent study showed that coastal wetlands prevented $625 million in property damage during Hurricane Sandy. But at the end of the day we need comprehensive policy that protects floodplains for their highest and most efficient functions, including flood storage, water filtration, and recreation. That means we don’t pave them for parking lots, strip malls, stadiums. We give the river room or risk being hung out to dry by Mother Nature.