Looking Ahead…the Federal Role in River Management will change

Posted by on Feb 27, 2017 in Blog, News | Comments Off on Looking Ahead…the Federal Role in River Management will change

Looking Ahead…the Federal Role in River Management will change

Professional Practice Network Update

Sharing with you the most recent newletter from ASLA and the Water Conservation PPN.

As part of this series we see our very own, Jim Davis, PLA, ASLA, CID of Landtech Design based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Jim is collaborating on the twelve part technical series on irrigation design based on his robust practice in the Midwest, and share his knowledge in his role as Midwest Technology Officer of ASLA’s Water Conservation PPN.

Last month’s edition provided a look at the start-up of large federal water programs from 1930 to 1940. The State of California just experienced flooding on 40 rivers ending a long drought in 42% of the state. Snowpack is at 178% in Sierra Nevada mountains contributing 30% of water supply. A $15.4 billion state bond package is in progress mostly in planning and design phase. If large scale water storage areas and groundwater recharge projects for water conservation had been in place on 40 rivers ahead of January, 2017, California’s long term water supply would be in better condition for meeting challenges ahead.

This month, we look at a main catalyst of the entire large federal control of U.S. rivers for the past 90 years; the great flood of 1927. This month’s recommended best seller book is “Rising Tide” (1997, Simon & Schuster) by John M. Barry.

The book traces river delta cotton plantation monoculture decline after the great flood, plus a series of interventions by (then) Secretary Herbert Hoover ushering in the next 90 years of USACE agency staff shaping the fate of the Mississippi River. After Hoover’s term as President, monumental control of river water resulted from massive increases in the size of the federal government. Programs of the 1930s brought forward the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, now part of the Bonneville Power Authority’s network of dams; the Hoover Dam (renamed Boulder Dam) on the Colorado River, reallocated water across Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and California; the Norris Dam and other dams within the Tennessee Valley Authority’s network of hydrodams served the South East US.

Hubris in the federal control rivers changed the fate of the nation bringing unprecedented US economic wealth at great costs and environmental impacts. With US federal debt at $20 trillion, the federal government  will become smaller starting in 2017. Private sector, state, and local agencies can step up to help meet large scale water infrastructure funding needs.

Rod D. Martin’s book review of “Rising Tide” in the year 2000 sums up how the federal government changed to respond to rivers the US:

“No one remembers the 1927 flood, or even that it happened; but it was the events surrounding that single event which more than anything else gave us modern America, and John Barry’s book is essential to understanding it.

Obviously the book gives a full account of the flood itself, of the history of the river and of the delta, of the people who carved a nation out of wilderness and who lived and died in the catastrophe; without a doubt, Barry does all this, and does it in gripping style: the book is hard to put down.

But Barry does far more. In telling the story, he shows how a heretofore anti-socialist America was forced by unprecedented circumstance to embrace an enormous, Washington-based big-government solution to the greatest natural catastrophe in our history, preparing the way (psychologically and otherwise) for the New Deal. He shows how this was accomplished through the Republican . . .Herbert Hoover, who would never have become President without the flood.  . . . It is an amazing tale indeed. . . .”

But on a more fundamental level, the book teaches us the power of the river, a lesson we’ve forgotten even in the face of some reasonably large modern floods.”

Before 1927, the federal government was smaller than most state budgets and did not have any large funding role in flood prevention or river system management. Disaster relief was handled mainly by the Red Cross (co-founded by Fredrick Law Olmsted) until 1927, not by a federal government agency. As the US looks ahead from the end of January, 2016, federal government will reduce staff by 10% and reduce funding by 20%. Before November, 2016, parts of the US were actively working locally to mitigate prior damage to restore natural river systems by unwinding federally funded changes to natural rivers.

The Everglades River in South Florida was able to accomplish some restored natural hydrology while the Mississippi River remains a large challenge. Prior federal funded interventions in natural river hydrology dating back to the second half of the 1800’s need to be reversed or further modified.  On the Snake River, federal litigation filed in Portland, Oregon seeks to prevent $110 million in federal spending, and remove anywhere from one to all fifteen existing hydrodams. This would prevent salmon migration above river mile 247 (Hell’s Canyon Dam has no fish ladders, the 4 lower dams below do allow fish passage) and fish access to the remaining upper 800+ river miles primarily within Idaho. The lower 4 hydrodams provide net benefits with less impact to salmon. Note: Hydrodams are a low carbon emission base load electrical power source enabling solar and wind energy, yet environmental activists seeking removal of the lower 4 dams ignore hydropower’s role in providing base load power for alternative energy.

As an example of undoing prior federal intervention in Louisiana, lands near Baton Rouge flooded in August 2016 to 1,000 year flood event levels. The Amite River connects to Lake Maurepas via a manmade diversion canal. Coastal engineers are working to correct an ecological disaster decades in the making. Left unchecked, a mature cypress swamp will disappear within a lifetime.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug the Amite River Diversion Canal in the 1950s to prevent flooding during times of high water. Beginning downstream of the French Settlement area, the canal flows along the Livingston-Ascension parish line depositing water from the Amite into the Blind River before emptying into Lake Maurepas.

In the article Missteps in Building Amite River diversion canal design flaws endangering ecosystem, Jason Curole, a project manager for the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) states, “However, the US Army Corps of Engineers took the soil displaced from digging the canal and piled it along the banks… So Now water doesn’t flood the existing wetlands from the Amite River, and the river can’t overtop the unintentional earthen dikes built along the canal. The result is that a rare cypress tree swamp is starved for nutrients found in the river water”

“The cypresses (Taxodium distichum, Bald Cypress) are “stressed out,” right now, and they’ll die if the problem isn’t addressed,” Curole said, “And with the trees goes the entire ecosystem.”

“(The walls of soil have) disrupted the natural hydrology of the adjacent swamp,” according to a recent CPRA report.

“This impoundment has caused degradation of the swamp, and without this project, existing habitat will convert to open water within 50 years.”

The project intended to address the problem which involves plowing through the embankments on state Wildlife and Fisheries property to form a trio of channels where water can flow out. Then, authorities will go in and replant the swamp to “jump start” ecological recovery, according to the report.

The construction will cost about $736,000 and the planting will likely come in around $1 million. The Coastal Authority expects the project will help rejuvenate approximately 1,600 acres of swamp land.

Work on the channels began in September and was expected to conclude in December, 2016. In future editions, we’ll focus on prior large scale federal funded federal programs requiring corrective action by local responses, plus private funding in water programs. Examples in Louisiana, Florida, Idaho, Oregon, and California this month show large federal programs have harmed and also helped water conservation – could a smaller federal role in water ahead actually help restore natural water systems?

Trends and Events

For LID storm water techniques, webinars from EPA (most are free), and online learning at ASLA, check out the following links:





University of Wisconsin (UW) remains a leader in education, training, research, and demonstration projects in lakes and rivers. For river and lake work, many specialists are working as a team in hydrology, limnology, and earth sciences. Check out The Yahara 2070 plan for additional information. This example shows how the State of Wisconsin and the UW system remain thought leaders in Great Lakes water policy and natural resource protection required for water supply.

Wisconsin DNR agency takes a realistic, balanced approach. By side stepping the current unproductive debate about climate change causation (human, natural or some combination), the state frees up limited resources to focus on realistic state agency responses to mostly water related events: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/greatlakes/climatechange.html

The US and Canada are now engaged in the world’s largest research study of water supply funded at $500 million over the next seven years studying mountain regions for snow pack. This research will include 12 countries and 27 universities plus other NGOs.

The Robert S. Reich School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge graduate level MLA course in Fall, 2016 led by faculty advisor and author Bruce Sharky, FASLA developed a 58 page summary of plan alternatives for Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas. Each student addressed the same study area taking a different focus of the vital waterway. Examples include bird habitat along the central flyway for migration, innovative storm water, innovative flood control, and urban design patterns featuring various methods of water access. The effort includes emerging professionals from the SWA Houston office in the role of advisors. Check out the following link: https://filestogeaux.lsu.edu/public/download.php?FILE=bshark2/51165sfFOui