Changes to the U.S. Levee System Won't Come Easily

After a century of building the U.S. levee system, we're facing a tough reality: It wasn't built to protect us from the effects of climate change.

Video Transcript

TOM BULLOCK: It washed the foundation out from underneath it and the trailer went in the water. They lost everything they had.

J DAVID ROGERS: People expect that dike, that levee to protect them. They don't want it to over and over and over.

TOM BULLOCK: It's got to stop. I don't know what it's going to take to do it, but it needs to happen.

- If there was one consistent thing we heard in talking to people who live and work close to rivers, it was this. They talked about floods happening again, levees blown out again, hundreds of millions of tax dollars in repairs again. Everything was again. And they weren't confident that will change.

JUD KNEUVEAN: It's a pretty sinking feeling. We literally get some of these repaired, and we come back into them a year or two later, and they're being damaged again.

J DAVID ROGERS: Well, yeah. What we're doing is we're trying to make one size fits all.

- Dr. J. David Rogers with the Missouri University of Science and Technology has studied catastrophic floods on every continent except Antarctica. He says the US river levee system was flawed to begin with, that trying to contain too much of our waterways and then developing in the flood plain without data to support those decisions, that was risky. And now climate change is exposing those flaws more often and more severely. So we may soon have to decide between taming rivers, moving people out, or something in between.

J DAVID ROGERS: So the summers are going to be more extreme drought-prone and the wet seasons are going to be wetter. The swings are getting more and more severe. So that's a big, big problem that is going to just grow. And the biggest issue we're having with it right now is, who's going to pay for this stuff? Boy, that's when it gets into politics.

JUD KNEUVEAN: That's hard to swallow for some folks that there are probably some of these levee systems that the cost to repair them is probably the cheapest alternative going forward. And then other cases, it's probably not the right thing to do.

- There are bills in Congress to change how the Army Corps of Engineers can manage certain rivers. But even the Corps biggest critics point out it's operating with old laws, hydrology data often decades old, and not enough money. Jud Kneuvean with the Corps knows the first major thing you have to talk about with flood control is simple but expensive-- protection.

JUD KNEUVEAN: We're more in a reactive mode than a proactive mode, and there are no easy solutions. And it takes will to do it, but it takes dollars to execute it, and so you have to have both.

- The Corps estimates as much as $38 billion is needed just to address current risks, and that's only for the levees in its portfolio. There are far, far more levees essentially on their own. So actually upgrading the system to account for the looming realities of climate change, that's a price tag big enough Congress hasn't touched it yet.

J DAVID ROGERS: We don't look at those big picture things. We look at what's good for us in the here and now and not thinking about as far out into the future as we probably should be.

- We've also learned the hard way, especially during Hurricane Katrina, that no levee is fail proof. So the second major thing you have to talk about with flood control is more complicated-- managing risk. How can we better protect the people and property behind levees? Should they even be there in the first place? And who gets the limited pool of dollars available?

J DAVID ROGERS: So that's the world we're heading into. And the rural dweller who's out in the floodplain is going to get left out of all that because they're just a few people here and there. Since the 1993 flood, FEMA has been trying to move rural dwellers out of the floodplain up onto the bluffs.

TOM BULLOCK: West, for miles, is nothing but water.

- Try telling all that to Tom Bullock. The northwest Missouri farmer's grandparents settled here in the '30s on the government's promise that the levee system made the land safer from floods. His levees have broken five times in the last 12 years.

TOM BULLOCK: Everywhere you go in this country, you're in a place that could potentially have a disaster. Look at all the people who live around the coast. The hurricane comes along, wipes them out. But they go right back. I don't expect them to move. They like it there. We deserve just as much protection as they give them down there. But it doesn't seem to end up like that.

- Like ending floods, none of these scenarios would play out quickly or is even all that likely to happen. It would take political will from Congress, a lot of money, and picking winners and losers. Though, to be fair, that's effectively what's happening if the people here have to wait for floods again.

JUD KNEUVEAN: It's a Band-Aid. There's always going to be a bigger storm.