As climate risks increase, Mississippi River towns look to each other for solutions

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, with major funding from the Walton Family Foundation.

Cities and towns across the Mississippi River basin have always needed to weather the environmental disasters associated with living along a river.

The past few years have brought wild fluctuations between flooding and drought, bringing more stress to the communities nestled along the Mississippi’s 2,350 miles.

In the last five years alone, they’ve seen springtime flooding, flash flooding, significant drought, and low river levels, with opposite ends of this spectrum sometimes occurring in the same calendar year.

“When these rivers have disasters, the disaster doesn’t stay in the river,” said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. “It damages a lot of businesses, homes, sidewalks, and streets; even broadband conduit and all kinds of utilities, mains and water return systems.”

The cost of those damages can run into the millions, if not billions.

The River Des Peres in south St. Louis on Dec. 3, 2023. The drainage ditch fills up with water during heavy rains and prolonged flooding.
Eric Schmid / St. Louis Public Radio

One potential solution Wellenkamp encourages the 105 individual communities in his organization to consider is to work with, rather than against, the river. 

“Just about all of them have some sort of inlet into the Mississippi River that they’re built around,” he said. “Some of them are big and some of them are really small. But all of them need attention.”

It’s not a new idea, and many cities are already investing in nature-based solutions, such as removing pavement, building marshes, and making room for the river to flow. Now, St. Louis is looking to learn from Missouri’s neighbors in Dubuque, Iowa, on what the city can do with its River Des Peres. 

‘It’s just an eyesore’

“It’s just an eyesore,” said Beatrice Chatfield, 15, who was walking along the River Des Peres pedestrian and bike greenway with her mom Jen. “There’s trash and debris and muck in it. It’s just all-around gross.”

It’s less of a river and more of a large concrete and stone-lined drainage channel that winds from the Mississippi through the urban landscape before disappearing beneath St. Louis’ largest park, Forest Park. It then reemerges further west in the suburb of University City.

“It’s basically the small version of the LA River, which is just a cesspool,” said Sam Rein, 29. “During the summer it smells—we don’t exactly like living next to it, but it’s a neat feat of engineering that’s for sure.” 

A creek runs through landscaped grass in a tidy town.
An aerial photo of the Bee Branch Creek in Dubuque, Iowa on June 28, 2018. The creek is the result of a project to convert a buried storm sewer into a linear park.
City Of Dubuque

It can also be dangerous, Wellenkamp said.

“As the Mississippi River rises, the River Des Peres then begins to back up into people’s basements and yards and small businesses into the city,” he said. 

Some 300 homes flooded in University City alone when the St. Louis region was hit with record breaking rainfall in July 2022. Wellenkamp argues St. Louis should look to other cities in the Mississippi River basin who’ve learned to work with water, instead of against it.

Dubuque’s hidden creak

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dubuque, Iowa, had a major flash flooding problem. Over the course of 12 years, the city of nearly 60,000 received six presidential disaster declarations for flooding and severe storms.

Whenever heavy rains drenched the city, the water would rush down the bluff and overwhelm the stormwater infrastructure, said Dubuque Mayor Brad Cavanagh. 

Manhole covers erupted from the water pressure, turning streets into creeks and damaging thousands of properties.

“Somewhere along the line about 100 years ago, somebody buried a natural creek and turned it into a storm sewer and it wasn’t keeping up anymore,” Cavanagh said. “Many of the residents (in these neighborhoods) are low to moderate income and those least able to really recover from damage like this.” 

Around 2001, the city started looking for solutions. 

Dubuque faced a decision: expand the existing underground storm sewer or bring the Bee Branch Creek back into the daylight, expanding the floodplain and giving the water somewhere to go. The city opted for the latter option.

A stone bridge crosses over a creek.
A child fishes in the Bee Branch Creek in Dubuque, Iowa, in 2017. The creek has become a place where people can interface and learn about watersheds.
City Of Dubuque

The city established a citizen advisory committee early on in the process, which played a central role determining the eventual design for the restored Bee Branch Creek. 

Residents wanted more than concrete drainage ditch, Cavanagh said. They wanted trails, grasses, and greenery that wildlife and people could both enjoy, and, importantly, access to the water, he added.

The Bee Branch Creek turned into a 20-year-long project that became much more than just an engineering solution for excess rain water, Cavanagh said.

“It is one of the most beautiful parks we have in the city, a place where people go and watch the ducks and the birds,” he said.

Most importantly, it solved the city’s flash flooding issues, said Deron Muehring, Dubuque’s water and resource recovery center director, who before that role was an engineer involved with the Bee Branch restoration from start to finish. 

“2011 is the last presidential disaster declaration we had,” he said. “Now we haven’t had rains of that magnitude, but we have had significant rainstorms where we would have expected to have flooding and flood damage without these improvements.”

Learning from Dubuque

Other river cities see Dubuque’s success and want to know how they can apply it to their own flooding challenges, Cavanagh said. 

“As mayor, I’ve talked about this project more than anything else,” he said. “People want to know: ‘How did you do it? Why did you do it? What worked and what didn’t?’”

Cavanagh covered those details during a presentation on the Bee Branch to St. Louis aldermen in December, who were looking for ways to apply those lessons on the River Des Peres.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Anne Schweitzer was inspired by the ideas. 

“I could wish all day long that things like this had started sooner,” Schweitzer said. “But we’re here now and we have a responsibility. The length of time something will take always feels really long, but it takes longer if we don’t start.”

Time isn’t the only constraint, so is money. The Bee Branch in Dubuque had a price tag near $250 million. The city found a mixture of state and federal grant dollars totaling $163 million related to disaster resiliency, the environment, transportation, and recreation and tourism, leaving the city covering around $87 million, Cavanagh said. 

Midwest Climate Collaborative Director, Heather Navarro, said floodplain restoration projects like Bee Branch are worth the investment. 

A green bridge runs over a dark creek.
A thin layer of water lines the bottom of the River Des Peres near a storm sewer outlet and pedestrian bridge on Dec. 3 in south St. Louis. The river serves as a drainage channel for the city and frequently has debris and other trash in it. Eric Schmid / St. Louis Public Radio

“We have done a lot to pave over our floodplains and wetlands, but we know there’s a lot of inherent natural value in those,” she said. “Whether it is absorbing floodwaters, helping filter pollution, reducing soil erosion. When you start to add up those numbers, that really starts to change the economics. ”

She adds that when cities improve existing infrastructure like roads, bridges, and wastewater management, they should consider how to use nature-based solutions and reduce flood and other climate risks. 

“It’s not like we’re swapping out old infrastructure for new infrastructure,” Navarro said. For example, rain gardens can reduce pressure on wastewater drainage by absorbing excess water. Trees can reduce heat. “We’re really taking a whole new approach to how this infrastructure is interrelated with other systems that we’re trying to provide for our community.”

And there’s billions of dollars on the table from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act  for communities to tackle projects that build resilience. 

The path forward

As it stands, St. Louis is at the beginning of even considering what a project to bring more nature to the River Des Peres could even look like. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also exploring projects, specifically in University City, that could help store rainwater during heavy rains. 

The next major step would be a feasibility study of the entire River Des Peres watershed, which encompasses a handful of municipalities, Schweitzer said.

“There’s so many people who would need to be at the table to move something like this forward, which I don’t think is a bad thing,” she said. 

Navarro said if cities like St. Louis want to use natural infrastructure to reduce their flood risk, there’s no better time than now. 

“We know that climate change is impacting our communities,” she said. “We know that the way that we have been doing things in the past has in part contributed to where we are when it comes to the climate crisis.”

Wellenkamp agrees.

“Nature attracts business,” he said. “It stabilizes property value. It reduces crime. It creates resilience to disasters and extreme events. And it gives your place a better quality of life.”


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