River Talk

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Guest Blog Entry by Alex Guerrieri

The recent work by the US Army Corps of Engineers to relieve some of the flooding on the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois brings up several interesting topics for debate, including the priorities of the Corps, the long-term effects of flooding on an agricultural area, and the political quagmire that can occur when two distinct municipalities -- in this case Illinois and Missouri -- have vastly different ideas on the proper methodology of flood control.

In case you weren't aware yet, on Monday (May 2), the US Army Corps intentionally detonated a section of river levee along the Missouri shore, activating the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway in an effort to limit the effects of flooding on Cairo, Ill., which is located across the river. An explosive slurry was piped into the levee and detonated Monday evening, allowing nearly 550,000 cubic-feet per second of Mississippi and Ohio River floodwaters to drain into the floodway.

The Birds Point New Madrid Floodway, designed by the Corps specifically for this purpose, was originally built after the disastrous 1927 flood. However, even with such a significant volume of water being diverted from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, "Corps hydrologists estimate it will take 45-60 days for water to recede from the floodway . . . and another 21-30 days for the land to dry out." (US Army Corps of Engineers)

See a map of the area: (Google Maps)

This link shows two images courtesy of NASA, the first from April 29th and the second from May 3rd, a day after the levee was destroyed: (Southeast Missourian)

The topic of politics arises due to the fact that the floodwaters are being directed on to agricultural land in Missouri, in order to spare commercial and residential land in Illinois. The Missouri Legislature even went so far as to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the demolition, but were denied.

For the farmers whose croplands are now underwater, this means the loss of millions of dollars: lost seed, lost planting time, and in many cases, lost topsoil. According to Rick Cruse, a professor of agronomy professor at Iowa State University and director of the university's Iowa Water Center, those with land near the levees will find that topsoil has been washed away, while those farther away will have to deal with debris that has washed onto their land. Additionally, "pollutants and chemicals in the water is another concern, but that threat is largely eased by the sheer volume of water that diluted those substances."

Given these circumstances -- a record amount of rainfall (portions of the Ohio River have seen more than 25 inches of rain in the month of April alone), a river system that has no concern for state boundaries or any law besides gravity, and the potential for significant flooding of Cairo, IL -- is there a better choice of action that the Corps could have taken? How does the Corps determine its priorities in regard to flood control? Should loss of livelihood trump potential loss of life, even though most of Cairo's 2800 residents had already been evacuated before the levee was detonated? What do you think?

The Price Tag of the River

Guest Blog Entry by Andrea Long.

Recently I've heard a growing public discussion on strategies that will change the way users are charged for public goods and services. As a graduate student in Urban/Regional Planning, I've long been exposed to the concept of Value Capture - trying to get a user to pay the full price for a service or infrastructure they use. The base argument for Value Capture is that users gain more benefit from public infrastructure or services (e.g. highway roads) than they pay in for them (revenue from gasoline tax, title/plate fees, etc.). Value Capture has long-stood in theory form, and now seems to be inching towards reality.

Academics embrace Value Capture (the U of M's Center for Transportation Studies has released increasing amounts of research since the early 2008), and now it appears that public sector entities- yes, those currently suffering from tightening and constrained budgets- are taking the bait.

In late April Minnesota Public Radio covered a metro area test that will measure the miles driven by 500 GPS-equipped vehicles. This test will compare potential revenue from a miles-based fee as opposed to the current gasoline tax structure; the test is an effort to hedge vehicle fuel efficiency innovations that threaten to reduce future gasoline tax revenue. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has long measured the value impact of parks access on adjacent properties, reporting a 20% value increase to properties proximate to parks over the past 10 years. Additionally, parks are cited as one of the great 'draw' features that attracts new residents the Twin Cities. Now the park board is looking to capitalize on the value that parks bring to the community. A bill that would excise a fee for new development within the city or a fee-per-employee is working its way through the Legislature; this bill is intended to provide more money to the park board for land acquisition and park improvements in the future. This is not direct value capture, but it is a direct move by the park board to capitalize on the benefit that their services and amenities provide to the larger region.

So what in the world do these value capture iterations have to do with a blog about rivers? Everything.

What does access to the river or a water body mean to you? If you do not own land or a business on or near a water feature, but visit it for leisure, recreation, etc., you are not paying for the value you derive from it. You are also not fully paying for the way your home, vehicle or lifestyle pollute it. Nor the wildlife you enjoy watching that inhabit a river's ecosystem or navigate its stretches. Nor most any of the other environmental, economic and social benefits that a river contributes to society.

I am not advocating the institution of a value capture-based feed to access aquatic amenities- but I am asking you to stop and think about the value that rivers, streams and lakes bring to your life.

If testing 'value capture' is a wave of the future, how does one even begin to put a price tag on a river?

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.