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.

"The benefits are primarily transportation, property and sewage-treatment-plant protection in this particular case," O'Donnell continues. "And of course there's cleanup costs, there's overtime for the police, there are a lot of things that go into the economic benefit, but I think the fact that the towns are growing is a bigger influence than the other things."

But here is where the wetland-development spin cycle reaches its climax: Communities build on their wetlands. This causes more flooding. Levees are built, so more development occurs.

Scott Faber, director of the floodplain program for American Rivers, an environmental group, contends that when the Corps conducts its cost-benefit ratio studies, it fails to take this cyclical progress into account. "There are only two kinds of levees," he says, "those that have failed and those that will fail. And no one in the Corps will deny that. But at the same time the Corps recognizes that, they don't include in their cost calculations the costs of a levee's inevitable failure.

"Levees encourage development, and because there is so much development, the costs of a levee's failure are catastrophic, like what you saw in Chesterfield," Faber continues. "It's not a matter of if the levees fail, it's a matter of when."

Before the '93 flood, there were some 7,000 miles of levees on the Mississippi River. During the summer of 1993, 1,083 of 1,576 in the flood's path were overtopped or damaged. And according to several reports, the United States' annual flood damages -- adjusted for inflation and population -- have tripled since 1951 to about $8 billion in today's dollars. In other words, the construction of the levee on Plattin Creek will inevitably encourage more development in the area that the levee will protect -- or try to protect.

There are much bigger consequences of building levees, though, than just those determined by one particular levee in Jefferson County. A report issued in 1994 by the federal Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee concluded that unless the country stops building levees as forms of flood control, there will be a marked increase not only in the number of floods but in the damage that results. The report went on to recommend that instead of relying on levees, communities should consider halting development on their floodplains and restoring wetland habitats instead. And the feds are beginning to do their part to discourage such development (see sidebar).

According to a 1997 report issued jointly by the Sierra Club and the Clean Water Network, between 1993-97, flooding in the United States took 496 people's lives and caused $33 billion in damage. The report then quotes statements by hydrologist Donald Hey in the March 1995 Restoration Ecology:

"Despite the nation's massive effort during the past 90 years to build levees throughout the upper Mississippi River Basin, mean annual flood damage has increased 140 percent during that time.... The 1993 flood verifies the need for additional wetlands: the amount of excess water that passed through St. Louis during the 1993 flood would have covered a little more than 13 million acres -- half the wetland acreage drained since 1780 in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. By strategically placing 13 million acres of wetlands on hydric soils in the Basin, we can solve the Basin's flooding problems in an ecologically sound manner."

O'Donnell, of the Corps, says that although he understands the concerns of people living on or near Plattin Creek, he doesn't believe that building a levee there will cause more damage someplace else. For one, he says, the levee is small, only designed to protect about 40 acres of land, and for another, at least 25 acres of new wetlands will be created to mitigate the 8 acres or so on which the levee will be constructed.

"People think that if you block off one area from water, the water has to go someplace else," O'Donnell says. "That's true, but we're talking about such a tiny area, when you think about the thousands and thousands of acres that are flooded by the Mississippi River, I mean, what is 40 acres?"

It is precisely this philosophy that got us into trouble in the first place, says Ken Midkiff, executive director of the Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club: "Maybe one levee all by itself wouldn't cause a problem, but when you figure in all the others up and down the rivers and creeks, it is just adding to the problem in terms of impact."

As for Ed Peterein, he doesn't need federal engineers or multisyllabic committees to tell him any of that.

"I know it's not a real big levee," he says, "but it is going to back up water that belongs in the area that the river claims as its own. And where's it going to go? It's going to push it onto someone else. We've just about destroyed all the good wetlands in this state already. I don't know where it ends. I don't understand why you and I have to pay for people ignorant enough to build on a riverbank. That's what this all amounts to."

The Balancing Act
It took a long time for the idea of wetlands protection to seep into the country's environmental conscience, but starting with the Bush administration, the federal government began a series of policy changes discouraging their rabid development.

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