The nonprofit group American Rivers has named the Upper Mississippi River as one of its 10 "most endangered" rivers for 2019 because of increased flooding and illegal raising of levees that it says has intensified flooding downstream.
"Eighty miles of levees between Muscatine and Hamburg, Illinois, have been raised without obtaining the required state or federal approvals," the Washington, D.C.-based organization said Monday in a news release.
While increased flooding caused by climate change is the reason some levee and drainage districts have pursued higher levees, "their actions are intensifying the impact of flooding for their neighbors," the release says.
"For example, during the most extreme flood events, communities in and around Hannibal, Missouri, are projected to experience an additional foot or more of floodwaters because their neighbors have raised levees."
The American Rivers statement criticizes state and federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for failing to stop the illegal activity.
"Only the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken some action by removing some of the levee districts from a beneficial program that helps pay for damages to levees following a disaster. Unfortunately, the Army Corps' actions have had little effect."
The American Rivers report notes 10 locations where levees are two to three feet above authorized reach.
Allen Marshall, the Corps' chief of corporate communications for the Rock Island District, confirmed that the district has conducted surveys that show levees have been raised without permission.
Five locations have been removed — or deemed inactive — from a program in which the government pays 100 percent of the cost of rebuilding a levee if it is breached in a flood, he said.
But he noted that "levee height, as it relates to an authorized elevation, is only one aspect considered when the Corps inspects levee systems. It is not likely that a levee system would be made inactive in the program due to unauthorized levee height alone."
Also, being "inactive" doesn't mean the Corps no longer partners with a levee district," he wrote in an email. "We continue to actively engage the levee sponsors as they work to fix deficiencies in order to become re-established in the program. Flood risk management is a shared responsibility and the partnerships between our organization and the levee districts are critical."
Michael Cappannari, external affairs director for FEMA Region 7 in Kansas City, said in an email that FEMA "is not responsible for the design, operation or maintenance of levees.
"For the purpose of flood hazard and risk mapping, as directed by Congress, FEMA will only recognize those levee systems that meet, and continue to meet, minimum design, operation and maintenance standards, including certification by a professional engineer or a federal agency with responsibility for levee design," he wrote.
But the legality of levees does not affect whether FEMA helps people, he said.
"For instance, in Iowa ... millions of dollars have already been provided to affected individuals in Iowa as a result of the March flooding, and the status of levees would not impact that," he wrote.
'Flood control must move beyond levees'
American Rivers said the illegal raising of levees cuts the river off from more than 170,000 acres of floodplain. "In order to safeguard communities and restore river health, state and federal agencies must enforce laws that prohibit reckless raising of levees and prioritize use of natural and nature-based flood protection solutions."
American Rivers' stance is that the Upper Mississippi region needs to "move beyond an early 20th-century vision of flood control that foolishly relies on bigger and higher levees and floodwalls.
"Instead, federal and state agencies should advance natural and nature-based solutions, such as wetland and floodplain restoration and levee setbacks."
Olivia Dorothy, an employee of American Rivers who lives in East Moline, said the issue of the raised levees came to light several years ago when a whistleblower began contacting anyone she could think of about increased flooding on the land where she lives.
The changes, Dorothy said, began after the Great Flood of 1993.
"Things did not seem right," she said.
One way levees can be raised without attracting attention is to bring in fill and put it on the backside of a levee to make it wider. Then, during times of flood, that material can be pushed up to make the levee taller, Dorothy explained.
Dorothy is the associate director of Mississippi River Management for American Rivers.