Of Wetlands and Wal-Marts

One development at a time, Missouri has lost 87 percent of its wetlands. And that means more floods, more damage, more levees, more bucks. The story of one Supercenter and how progress comes at a price.

"I do understand why they have to build it now," he says.
In 1993, just months after the Wal-Mart Supercenter was constructed on a natural 5-acre wetland, the Mississippi River exploded, backed into Plattin Creek and engulfed Festus and Crystal City with 15 feet of water. The consequences were enormous. Homes were destroyed, roads became impassable and the Wal-Mart Supercenter was cut off from the rest of the world. For several weeks, the inundated local sewage treatment plant, just across Plattin Creek from Sunshine's lower field, spewed raw debris into the floodwaters that filtered through the schoolyards, the cemeteries and the parks of the twin communities.

"The thing is, they built the Wal-Mart and all those other businesses on a wetland," Sunshine says, indicating the Fashion Bug, the Arby's and half-a-dozen other stores in the immediate area. "They built it where they knew it was going to flood. Now they want us to pay for a levee to protect it. And I bet that levee's only going to make things worse."

For many in the quickly growing towns of Festus and Crystal City, the Wal-Mart Supercenter stands as a shiny, tax-generating, 5-acre concrete symbol of progress. Like hundreds of other communities in Missouri faced with increasing populations and the corresponding drain on public services, Festus and Crystal City take part in Missouri's floodplain landgrab in an attempt to shore up shaky budgets not ready to meet demand.

But allowing much-needed development on the floodplains ends up costing dearly in the end.

Less than 13 percent of Missouri's original wetlands still exist, though how many acres are eaten up every year by development is not a statistic in anybody's database. Missouri's floodplains have been so emaciated in the past several decades, only three other states can boast more of a loss.

And as development polishes off the last of the state's natural wetlands, a dangerously circular scenario plays out -- the wetlands-development spin cycle: Development destroys wetlands; because wetlands absorb floodwaters, more floods occur; because more floods occur, more damage is reported; because more damage is reported, more levees are built; because more levees are built and because levees only funnel water someplace else, more damages occur someplace else; because more damage occurs someplace else, more levees are built -- someplace else.

Those are the hard costs, but not the only ones. The flooding of Plattin Creek in 1993 and again in '97 closed down the sewage-treatment plant that stands between the Wal-Mart and the creek. In '93, the plant spilled raw sewage into the floodwaters and into the creek for six months and since then has been cited for violations by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) 105 times.

The citations mean there's a virtual building freeze in the area, because land developers are told by the DNR that they can't hook up to the sewer system until the sewer system is upgraded. But Festus and Crystal City can't upgrade the sewer system until a levee is built to protect it.

Sunshine, again, is apologetic: "I understand they have to build the levee, and I hope it works. I'd be tickled to death if it works. But where's the water supposed to go?"

60 Acres an Hour
The Mississippi River is about three miles from Festus and Crystal City by way of the 30-foot-wide Plattin Creek. On either side of the creek are bottomland hardwoods -- mainly willow, oak and cottonwood trees -- a few homes and small agricultural lots like Sunshine's.

In the winter of 1992-93, snowfall to the north was heavier than normal, and it stayed on the ground longer because of unseasonably cool temperatures. Later, when it melted under heavy spring rains, the soil along the Mississippi and its tributaries, including Plattin Creek, became dangerously saturated, and as conditions worsened, the high water in the rivers and creeks began to turn into runoff with no place to go. By the summer of '93, the Mississippi River and its tributaries saw the worst flooding of the upper Mississippi River basin in 133 years.

"Our major intersection is Highway 61-67 at Bailey Road," says Johnston, Crystal City's mayor, about the crossroads that carry more than 20,000 vehicles a day. "In 1993 it was under 12 to 14 feet of water. Now this is three miles inland from the actual river, but what happened is, Plattin Creek backs up, and Plattin Creek has four tributaries which back up, then the storm sewers back up, and then we're in a world of hurt."

At least 180 buildings were flooded, 80 local businesses were forced to close and Crystal City lost its drinking-water supply. City services were completely shut down, and traffic that would normally work its way down the main streets, including emergency vehicles, was re-routed to the area's extremities.

"I'm thinking of one little boy in particular," recalls Johnston. "He was having a choking, coughing fit and had to be rushed to Jefferson Memorial Hospital. It should have taken about three minutes for them to get there but ended up taking 45. We almost lost that little boy."

No one that year pointed to the construction of the Wal-Mart Supercenter as the cause of the millions of dollars in flood damage, but afterward, when the sludge and debris and bloated sandbags were cleared away, when the streets were cleared and the Wal-Mart parking lot was dry, questions about floodplain management surfaced like long-forgotten memos.

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