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Heavy Rains Bring Raging Floods - and a Debate

Should rivers be dammed or allowed to take their course?

Davenport this spring, in an image that’s not at all unusual for this flood-prone town.
Davenport this spring, in an image that’s not at all unusual for this flood-prone town.

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Ted Landphair

This spring, so-called “100-year floods” swamped many communities along the Mississippi River, America’s largest commercial waterway.

The flooding was so severe that the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which supervises national flood-control efforts, took the nearly unprecedented step of opening giant floodgates to keep high water from reaching Baton Rouge, the capital city of Louisiana, and the major port of New Orleans.

The result was the deliberate flooding of millions of hectares of rural areas and small settlements in Louisiana’s already swampy “bayou country.”

Whether to hold back the river or let it flood is a longstanding issue on the Mississippi - one that crystallizes each spring in the city of Davenport, Iowa.

Pleasant Davenport without flood waters.
Pleasant Davenport without flood waters.

Over the past decade, floodwaters reached near-record levels there three times.  Each time this happened, photos showed the city’s baseball stadium nearly submerged, giving the impression that much of Davenport was under water.

Parts of it are submerged during floods, but it’s by design.  The city has chosen not to build floodwalls, instead, turning the lowest-lying parts in town into floodable parkland. It provides sandbags to the few residential and business areas that take on some water during severe flooding.

It also moves a dozen or so homes out of the floodplain each year, and requires new homes built there to be elevated.

A more placid Mississippi at the Interstate Highway 74 bridge connecting Davenport with Illinois.
A more placid Mississippi at the Interstate Highway 74 bridge connecting Davenport with Illinois.

Critics say that floodwalls and levees could prevent the flooding altogether.  But officials say dikes upstream from the city already act like a sluice, causing the river to flow even faster, deeper, and more dangerously through their town.  

If they built levees, Davenporters say, smaller communities below would have to do the same - and so on, all the way down the river.

No thank you.  So Davenport takes its floods in stride and lets the mighty river do what rivers do from time to time.

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