With the coronavirus already stretching supplies and budgets, local leaders worry that a flood could overwhelm them.
New Orleans is a hot spot for Covid-19, and thousands of cases locally means [Belinda Constant, Mayor of Gretna, LA, is] working with a skeletal staff under lockdown conditions. Meanwhile, the Mississippi has risen more than a foot in the past week, triggering emergency flood measures. And the rains keep coming.
Gretna itself is below sea level, and currently some 11 feet below the surging river. All that’s keeping the city dry is a levee built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Constant says she prays every day that it doesn’t rain any more, or that one of the enormous cargo ships making its way down the river doesn’t get caught in the currents and swept into the barrier…
Louisiana, along with the rest of the Mississippi Valley region, is in the middle of its annual wet season, which usually peaks in April. This year’s floods are predicted to be more moderate than 2019’s, which covered a record expanse of 19 states, starting in January and lasted for an unprecedented nine months and affected 14 million people.
Even a milder season could be devastating to many, however. The U.S. National Weather Service says they might still affect more than 128 million people, and several areas are approaching flood stage already.
Colin Wellenkamp is the executive director of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative, which coordinates and organizes towns along the entire river corridor. He says Mayor Constant’s anxieties are shared by many local officials. “We are averaging a 100- to 200-year flood event annually somewhere on the river,” he says. As a result, many towns’ emergency capabilities were already tapped out before Covid-19, he says.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are promising the same amount of help to states as in previous years. Yet FEMA , by its own accounting, is well below its own 2015 targets for field staffing for emergencies. And even if the big agencies could provide the level support local communities have come to depend on, that still may not be enough. “The challenges are just so much bigger this year,” says Wellenkemp.
For starters, just like everywhere else, towns facing flooding are also facing extreme shortages of protective equipment such as face masks and gloves. Not only are doctors and nurses worried about shortages, so are first responders who may have to rescue people and property during an emergency. Most towns also rely heavily on volunteers for everything from filling sandbags to moving equipment to stocking shelters for displaced families. If officials can’t guarantee adequate safeguards for health, they aren’t sure people will show up…
Town officials have similar concerns related to institutions like the Red Cross, which they rely on to set up shelters when needed. Many wonder how they’ll cope in an era where group shelters such as gyms or tents are no longer an option.
Bob Gallagher, the mayor of Bettendorf, Iowa, isn’t one of them. He’s working with both state and federal officials and is optimistic that his city could handle flooding if it occurred. For now he’s sheltering homeless people in local hotels instead of group shelters, and says that’s working fine. But he acknowledges that the outlook might not be so rosy for smaller towns that have to rely almost entirely on volunteers in big emergencies.
The good news, says Wellenkamp, is that FEMA has made spending on Covid-19 preparations reimbursable by the federal government, a standard practice for damage from natural disasters that reach the level of federal emergency. The bad news is that FEMA still hasn’t reimbursed municipalities for the 2019 flooding, and many are already carrying heavy debt. “The economic impact from this will be greater than even last year’s record flood,” he says.
A year after flooding battered the Missouri River’s levee system, inundating towns and farmland and causing multiple closures to the nation’s interstate highway system, early forecasts warn that more of the same could be on the way: above-normal rainfall, greater than normal spring runoff. A USA TODAY Network analysis delves into records of an aging system of nearly a thousand levees where nobody knows how many were damaged last year or how many were repaired…
The forecast is a veritable index of meteorological plagues: above-normal rainfall; greater than normal spring runoff; thoroughly saturated soils; and an aging system of nearly a thousand levees where nobody knows how many were damaged last year and in previous floods or how many were repaired.
The 855 levee systems throughout the Missouri River basin protect at least half a million people and more than $92 billion in property. Yet a USA TODAY Network analysis of Army Corps of Engineers’ records found at least 144 levee systems haven’t been fully repaired and that only 231 show an inspection date.
Of those, nearly half were rated “unacceptable,” which means something could prevent the levee from performing as intended or a serious deficiency was not corrected. Only 3.5% were deemed acceptable; the rest were found to be “minimally acceptable.”
Only 231 of the levee systems show any inspection date. For 38, the most recent inspection date was more than five years ago.
In the Army Corps’ Kansas City district, for example, about 70 projects, spanning 119 levees that requested repair assistance, are eligible for funding, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be ready if the waters rise like they did last year.
“Some of them have been repaired, but from a total system perspective, I don’t think any of them are whole,” said Jud Kneuvean, the district’s chief of emergency management, who expects full levee rehabilitation and repair to take at least another year.
In the meantime, the extent and impacts of flooding will depend on when and where the rain falls…
The 2,300-mile Missouri River begins in southwestern Montana, where the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson rivers converge near the community of Three Forks, before gathering water from 10 states and parts of two Canadian provinces to become the “Big Muddy,” North America’s longest river.
In recent years, more rainfall has been pouring into the Missouri River basin, raising questions about whether climate change is bringing worsening floods more often. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dating back to 1895 shows record-setting rainfalls in the area occurring more often. Last year, for example, was the wettest on record in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
All that water adds to the challenge faced by Corps policymakers, who juggle sometimes conflicting priorities that include maintaining navigation; managing the reservoir system to prevent flooding; providing farmers with irrigation and hydropower; protecting endangered species; and preserving recreational opportunities.
While the priority is protecting human life and safety, the Corps’ decision-making sometimes puts special interest groups at odds, and the agency remains embroiled in controversy over whether the engineering of the river exacerbates flooding.
Things came to a head last year when a bomb cyclone in March melted all the snow in Nebraska and Iowa at once and dumped tremendous rain, swelling not just the Missouri, but the Elkhorn, Platte, James and Big Sioux rivers.
The Niobrara River in Nebraska breached the Spencer Dam on March 14, sending a wall of water downstream and into the Gavins Point reservoir near Yankton, South Dakota. At the peak, water flowed into the reservoir at 180,000 cubic feet per second — nine times more than the normal average for March. Meanwhile water was coursing into the rivers downstream of the dam and the effects of all that water were felt in nearly every community downstream.
Two other big rain events occurred in May and September. When the Corps’ Kansas City district deactivated its emergency operations center in December, it had been open for 279 days, the longest period on record…
Construction of the higher levee is in the administrative and planning stages, with actual construction activity set for fall.
Most of the Missouri’s levees fall into one of two categories: either federally built and locally operated or locally built and operated. The Corps inspects — and helps pay to repair — only the levees maintained to federal standards that participate in the federal flood program.
That exception means no one has a full list of damaged levees still in need of repair.
The number of levees that aren’t regularly inspected doesn’t surprise Neal Grigg, an engineering professor at Colorado State University who chaired a Corps-appointed review panel after 2011 flooding.
In an ideal management system, every levee “would be under the responsibility of some authority that was responsible and had enough money and good management capability to do that,” Grigg said.
But that’s not realistic, he added, noting that the Corps has tried through a task force to get some organization to the levee systems along the river, but it’s problematic, in part, because there are so many conflicting interests.
A host of agencies are cooperating to repair levees, but the progress is slow, said Missouri farmer Morris Heitman, who serves on the Missouri River Flood Task Force Levee Repair Working Group.
In addition to the Corps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state of Missouri, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and a large number of local levee districts all work to repair levees.
“We’re trying to dance with different agencies,” Heitman told the University of Missouri Extension. “All these agencies have their own requirements and parameters, and we’re trying to coordinate those to build a secure system against the river.”
Fixes to the 144 levee systems listed in disrepair in the Corps’ Omaha and Kansas City districts are in various stages of completion, and some aren’t expected to be done for more than a year.
In the Omaha district that includes Nebraska and Iowa, “pretty much all of the levees were damaged in one way or another,” said the corps’ Matt Krajewski.
While almost all of the district’s levees that qualify for federal aid have been restored to pre-2019 flood heights, Krajewski said they don’t offer the same level of “risk reduction” because they need final touches such as sod cover and drainage structures to protect against erosion. The Corps hopes to complete those repairs this summer.
In the meantime, the Corps is working to prepare its flood storage capacity by releasing more water than normal from its dams.
“We’re being really aggressive with our releases and trying to maintain our full flood storage,” said Eileen Williamson, a Corps spokeswoman for the Northwestern region.
But the projections for spring runoff don’t look good and may limit how much the Corps can do.
In February, the runoff was twice the normal average, said Kevin Grode, with the Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management district.
The James River, a tributary that flows out of South Dakota, has experienced flooding since March 13 last year and that flooding is forecast to continue. Moderate flooding is expected along the Big and Little Sioux Rivers in South Dakota and Iowa, and possibly in Montana’s Milk River basin. A risk of minor to moderate flooding is forecast from Nebraska City to the river’s confluence with the Mississippi in St. Louis.
But it’s not just the spring runoff that’s a problem, Grode said. The forecast also calls for “above average runoff for every month in 2020.”
John Remus, chief of the Corps’ Missouri River Water Management Division, said during a March briefing that if those projections are realized, “the 2020 runoff will be the ninth highest runoff in 122 years of record keeping.”
In March, a three-man team with Montana’s Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest set off on horseback for a 35-mile, five-day journey into the wild North Fork of the Sun River, a tributary of the Missouri River.
They rode horses for the first 12 miles. When they reached a foot of snow, they switched to skis and took turns breaking trail.
Greeted by a half inch of new snow each morning, higher and higher they skied, encountering snow depths of 19 inches, then 2 feet, 9 inches and finally, 3 feet, 3 inches.
At each elevation, aluminum tubes with non-stick coating were stuck into the snow to collect core samples used to measure the depth and water content of the snowpack.
“The numbers are used for everything from dam control along the Missouri River to regulating the locks on the barges of the Mississippi,” said Ian Bardwell, the forest’s wilderness and trails manager, who led the snow survey expedition. “It just depends on what level you are looking at it from.”
As of Wednesday, mountain snowpack in the Missouri River basin in Montana was 112% of normal, said Lucas Zukiewicz, a water supply specialist with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Montana.
In 2018, Montana’s April snowpack was 150% of normal, then 7 to 9 inches of rain over six days drenched the Rocky Mountain Front, inundating communities in its shadow. The Corps was forced to release water from the Fort Peck Dam spillway, a rarity, as a result of surging flows. Had that same thing happened last year, flooding in states downstream would have been even worse.
“With the way things are changing with our climate,” said Arin Peters, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Great Falls, Montana, “it’s probably a matter of time before something combines to create a big catastrophe downstream.”
Yet for this year, there may be some good news downstream from the Montana snowpack, at the Gavins Point Dam in Yankton.
Gavins Point is what’s known as a reregulation dam, its purpose to even the Missouri’s flow from the reservoirs upstream. Because Gavins Point wasn’t designed to hold floodwater, its gates had to be opened last year, sending a surge downstream after Nebraska and parts of South Dakota were hit with rain and the bomb cyclone.
In November and December, Gavins Point was still releasing water at a rate of 80,000 cubic feet per second — more than five times the average flow, and something that had never happened before, said Tom Curran, the dam’s project manager.
The good news? Releasing all that water through the winter left the mainstem dam system drained to its multipurpose zone, where it has capacity to absorb runoff while also fulfilling its other functions, including recreation and downstream barge traffic.
More rain has fallen in the lower 48 states over the last 12 months than during any similar period in over 120 years of record-keeping. More than 36 inches has fallen on average. According to the Washington Post the record precipitation is an increasing trend, which is expected as climate warming intensifies rainfall.
While most of the country is drought-free, much of the Midwest and south central areas of the country are full of water. The upper Midwest has been inundated by rapid snowmelt and continuing rains. The Mississippi River has risen to one of its highest levels since 1993. The Coast Guard shut down a five-mile stretch in St. Louis to barge traffic which is hard on farmers who are being hit not only with rains and flooding, but also tariffs.
Farther south in Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency due to severe weather. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre spillway for the second time this year to protect New Orleans by diverting water into Lake Pontchartrain. The same storm system affected Houston, where thousands and businesses lost power and heavy flooding forced evacuations. Parts of the city received five inches of rain in 90 minutes on Thursday.
In the north, water levels on the Great Lakes are expected to reach record highs this year. Lake Superior rose two inches more than normal in April. About six years ago Lakes Huron and Michigan fell to their lowest points during a 15-year slump that dried up wetlands and forced cargo vessels to lighten loads. Now a spokesperson for the Army Corps told the Detroit Free Press they are at the other extreme, and experts say the prolonged drop-off followed by the recent rise in levels is a result, at least in part, of a warming climate.
Here’s a report on the flooding in Nebraska from Peter Salter writing for The Lincoln Journal Star. Click through and read the whole article and check out the various videos. Here’s an excerpt:
From their offices in Lincoln early Thursday, hydrologists with the U.S. Geological Survey were monitoring the final few moments of a stream gauge more than 200 miles away, on the Niobrara River.
It was hinting at something catastrophic.
“We were watching it from here, and it looked like something incredible was happening that we couldn’t believe,” said Jason Lambrecht. “And suddenly, everything went dark.”
The gauge had been ripped away by the wall of water released when the 90-year-old Spencer Dam failed under the pressure of the river, swollen with rain and rapid snowmelt and broken ice. But its last readings allowed Lambrecht to measure the size of the surge.
Earlier, the Niobrara had been running at 5 or 6 feet of gauge height. After it broke through the dam, it measured nearly 17.5 feet. It wasn’t a gradual increase, either…
And in its wake, three Nebraska counties would learn how that much moving water can become immediately destructive and potentially deadly. How it can cause instant pain and long-term suffering. How it can harm not only those in its path, but those living miles away.
First, the wave swept away a section of U.S. 281, a nearby riverside saloon and at least one home, possibly occupied. And it continued downstream, barreling toward the town of Niobrara — and its mouth at the Missouri River — about 40 miles away.
Knox County: ‘It’s crazy’
The service station owners thought they were ready for the coming water.
They’d taken the tire machine and other equipment away. They brought the important paperwork home. They put their ’68 Camaro up on the lift. They moved the rest of what they could to higher ground, filling the rafters with inventory.
And the couple had a huge inventory. Vic’s Service has anchored the west edge of Niobrara for 25 years, and had enough hydraulic fittings and plumbing pieces to serve as a kind of farmer’s supply store, said Ruth Janak, who co-owns the station with her husband, Victor.
They checked on their business Wednesday, and found it already swamped with 4 feet of water, her desk upturned, pop machines on their sides. A mess, but nothing they couldn’t handle.
“We thought, when the water recedes, we’ll be able to get in and clean all that up,” she said.
They returned Thursday, and found most of it missing.
“Our main building, the one we did our business at, it’s gone. The gas pumps are gone. We lost the propane tank. So many tools are gone,” Janak said Friday. “Where’s all that stuff at? It’s crazy.”
Later, she would find a jug of hydraulic fluid — and someone else’s pontoon boat — on what remained of the town’s golf course. But their main building, and much of what it contained, had likely tumbled downstream.
Theirs wasn’t the only missing building. The wall of water had brutalized Niobrara’s west side, a low-lying commercial district, and the part of town closest to the river.
Jody Stark, the chair of the village board, listed the other casualties. Several buildings from a hay business? Gone. A state Department of Transportation garage? Gone. A Knox County road shop? Gone. The Mormon Bridge on Nebraska 12? Stark has video of the deck floating away. The Country Cafe? Still standing, but it had been nearly swallowed by water and ice, with maybe a foot of the roof visible at one point.
“A lot of buildings washed away,” he said. “They were pretty much swept right down the river and they’re in the Missouri somewhere.”
The good news? Almost all of the 300 or so residents of Niobrara live on higher ground, and weren’t directly hurt by the floodwaters…
Still, his town was struggling. The flooding compromised the town’s two wells, leaving its residents without a water supply, and the fire department was going door-to-door, filling containers. Getting in and out of town was also difficult; by Friday, the Standing Bear Bridge to South Dakota had reopened, and there was one passable gravel road south of town. Nebraska 14, the main route south out of Niobrara, was so strewn with ice it was only open for emergency travel.
The damage was unprecedented, Stark said, and worse than they had originally expected. But that was before they’d heard the Spencer Dam had failed and even more water was headed their way…
The Spencer Dam was a flow-through hydroelectric dam, with garage-type doors that let water through, and Becker said it wasn’t known whether the doors had been open or closed at the time. They disappeared downstream, he said.
Its breach triggered immediate and long-term problems. It swept away a Holt County house just downstream, and authorities were still searching for its owner.
“On March 14th at around 5 in the morning the dam on the niobrara river south of Spencer NE was overtaken by flooding and ice jams. 2 days prior to this there was significant snow melting. 1 day prior there was all day rain measuring 1-1.5 inches. The ground was still frozen from recent below normal temperatures. All that water broke loose ice chunks the size of cars and trucks. The dam was no match for this extreme force. The dam and the dike were both destroyed. The water then washed out Hwy 281 and flooding many communities downstream.” — Birkel Dirtwork
And the force of the flow severed the supply of water to the north, in Boyd County. Many of its 2,000 residents relied on the pipeline from Holt County that was buried beneath the river. Now that it’s gone, they don’t have the water they need for drinking, for livestock, for flushing.
They received a truckload of bottled water Friday, enough to last maybe a day, said Doug Fox, Boyd County’s emergency management coordinator. They need more…
And Boyd County was struggling to stay connected with the rest of the state. The failure of Spencer Dam took out a pair of routes over the Niobrara River, and the only ways out of Boyd County were north into South Dakota or west into Keya Paha County, Fox said.
Basically, the Mississippi meanders. Sometimes the river curves around so tightly that it just pinches off, cutting across the peninsula and leaving the bigger curve high, if not dry. That parenthesis of water alongside the main channel is an oxbow. In a flood, water churns up chunks of sediment and spreads into the oxbow. When the flood waters recede, the layer of coarse sediment sinks to the oxbow’s bottom, where it remains.
So Muñoz’s team humped their pontoon boat all the way from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to three oxbows whose birthdates they knew—one from about 1500, one from 1722, and one from 1776—and jammed pipe into the lakebed with a concrete mixer. “It vibrates so hard, your hands fall asleep,” Muñoz says. “And then you have 300 or 400 pounds of mud you’re trying to get back up.” But it worked.
The cores were a map of time, with today at the top and the oxbow’s birthday at the bottom. In between: A peak of the radioactive isotope cesium-137 marked 1963, when humans started testing nuclear bombs. Using technique called optically stimulated luminescence to date, roughly, when a layer was last exposed to sunlight, they spotted classic floods, like 2011, which caused $3.2 billion in damages, and 1937, which required the largest rescue deployment the US Coast Guard had ever undertaken.
The important part, though, was that the characteristics of the layers for floods they had numbers on could tell them about the magnitude of floods they didn’t. They got 1851, 1543, and on and on…
AFTER A PARTICULARLY devastating flood in 1927—637,000 people lost their homes, perhaps up to 1,000 killed, $14 billion in period-adjusted damage—human beings deployed the US Army Corps of Engineers to wage all-out war on nature to protect industry, farms, and trade. People tried to warn the government even as construction began on the Mississippi’s infrastructure—channelization, dredging, dams in the upper stretch, and along the middle and lower levees, concrete mats along the banks called revetments, and gates.
“All that increases the amount of water and the speed that water goes during a flood. What we’re saying is, we can’t explain the increase we’re seeing with climate alone,” Muñoz says. “But for the first time, we can go back further, to a state in which the river wasn’t dominated by human activities. We can really show that the way the river behaves today is not natural.”
Even that look at the prelapsarian Mississippi may not change much. Warnings that flood control would lead to uncontrolled floods date back to at least 1852, when a famous engineer named Charles Ellet warned in a report to Congress that the whole idea was going to lead to disaster. Yet the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi River and Tributaries Project remains in full, multi-billion-dollar effect. (Representatives for the Corps of Engineers did not return multiple requests for comment.)
Now, Muñoz’s inferential datasets don’t convince every river researcher. Bob Criss, a hydrogeologist at Washington University at St. Louis, says he doesn’t completely buy Muñoz’s team’s particle-size correlations and tree-ring cell biology. “It’s just a bunch of voodoo and sound bites,” Criss says. “I certainly don’t object to his conclusion. But I don’t think it’s robust.”
Criss definitely does buy the idea that engineering has made flooding worse, though. He says straight-ahead numbers like stage measurement (the height of the river) are enough to tell you that. Levees upriver send more water downriver. Revetments move that water faster. What might have been slow-spreading floodwaters when they were unconstrained turn into neighborhood-destroying mini-tsunamis when they burst all at once from behind failing levees…
And [Victor] Baker buys what Muñoz has come up with. “Levees protect against little floods. If you have a super-big flood that exceeds the capacity of the levee, the levees make that worse.” he says. There have been bigger floods than people remember—but the landscape recorded them. And if humans learn to play those recordings back, maybe we can find a new way to get ready for the waters yet to come.
Personal-care product company Tom’s of Maine will donate a million dollars to preserve and restore the nation’s water supply by working with the Nature Conservancy on a three out of four possible projects. Why three of four potentials? The company is asking the public to vote for their favorite water protection project. the top three will receive $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000 in funding, in addition to a guaranteed base level of support for each.
Remaining funds from Tom’s of Maine will go to support the Conservancy’s North American freshwater program, including on-the-ground projects along rivers and in river basins as well as water use and management projects to ensure that more of our natural waterways are protected.
Potential project areas include:
The Mississippi River Basin: Restoring key floodplains to reduce nutrient pollution in a basin that covers (or drains) 41% of the US;
East Coast Dam Removal: Freeing miles of river from Maine to Maryland by removing dams and improving habitat connections;
Sustainable Rivers Program: Working with the Army Corps of Engineers to better balance what people and rivers need to thrive;
The Colorado River Basin: Restoring and protecting water supplies.
The Colorado River Basin covers areas of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and irrigates nearly 4 million acres of cropland in the US and Mexico. It also supplies hydropower plants that generate more than 10 billion kilowatt-hours annually, according to the USGS. Like many areas of the country, the river basin suffers from supply and demand imbalances. The USGS is conducting a reclamation study that will define the extent of those imbalances and develop and analyze strategies to resolve those imbalances under a range of conditions that could occur during the next 50 years.
The Colorado River is about 1,400 miles long and flows through seven U.S. states and into Mexico. The Upper Colorado River Basin supplies approximately 90 percent of the water for the entire basin. It originates as rain and snow in the Rocky and Wasatch mountains. Credit USGS.
Mississippi River Basin
Here’s the release from the Walton Family Foundation (Justin Kenney):
$35 million investment will support urgent restoration priorities in the Colorado River Basin and Mississippi River Delta
The Walton Family Foundation (WFF) announced investments totaling $35 million to support the restoration and long-term health of the Colorado River Basin and the Mississippi River Delta. These investments are part of a larger five-year strategy to preserve healthy, flowing rivers and sustain the farmers, fishermen, businesses, families and wildlife that depend on them.
“The Colorado and the Mississippi are two of our greatest rivers, and they and the communities that depend on them are under serious threats,” said Rob Walton, board member and chair of the environment committee for WFF. “We are at a critical inflection point – the decisions made in the next few years will determine the long-term environmental and economic viability of both of these regions.”
Grants included in the investments announced today will support coalitions that include National Wildlife Federation, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana in the Mississippi River delta; American Rivers, Western Resource Advocates, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in the Colorado River basin; and Environmental Defense Fund and National Audubon Society in both regions.
Colorado River Basin
WFF has dedicated $20 million over the next two years in an effort to create a more flexible, effective water management system in the Colorado River Basin and improve the overall health of the Colorado River. The lower basin was recently named the most endangered river in the nation by the conservation group American Rivers. The Colorado River is indispensable to the prosperity of the Southwest. It provides water to almost 40 million people in several of the country’s fastest-growing cities. It irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmland, with agriculture and animal production from counties served by Colorado River water resulting in upward of $5 billion in sales.
“Water management is an important and pressing issue for the state of Arizona, and one that has been a top priority,” Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said. “It impacts our economy, our quality of life, our environment and our ability to continue to grow and thrive. This significant investment will amplify and expand efforts underway along the Colorado River.”
“Coloradans know the importance of protecting our precious rivers and streams. Water is essential to our western way of life,” said Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. “The Walton Family Foundation’s investment aligns with the goals of the Colorado Water Plan in ensuring water security, promoting sustainability, supporting agriculture and more. This investment is an example of the collaboration necessary to find pragmatic solutions to these issues and make sure these rivers are healthy for generations to come.”
In the face of drastic water shortages, policymakers, water managers and others in the region agree about the urgent need for water management reform. The foundation’s efforts focus on channeling this shared urgency to achieve important agreements that address ongoing water shortages and provide long-term solutions for the benefit of people and the river.
In the Lower Colorado River, WFF-funded efforts support:
Renewing the binational Colorado River agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to improve water management in both countries,
Ensuring California meets it commitment to fund and achieve mitigation to the shrinking Salton Sea, and
Partner with Arizona to manage its scarce water resources through pro-active conservation programs.
In the Upper Colorado River, WFF-funded efforts support:
Securing long-term public funding to protect and improve river health and secure the reliability of Colorado’s water supply, and
Advancing the development of an Upper Basin market-based water bank program that benefits rivers.
Core to all of this work, the foundation supports on-the-ground restoration of river health in “proof point” tributaries including the San Pedro River, Verde River, the Escalante River, the Gila River and the Colorado River Delta.
What others leaders are saying about the importance of a sustainable Colorado River:
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock
“Water is one of our most important resources out here in the west, but it’s a limited one. The time is now to secure our water future, and it will take collaboration and innovation to protect assets like the Colorado River Basin and the livelihoods of the Coloradans it supports. Investments in the health, resiliency and sustainability of our precious water resources ensures our water security and the future of the Colorado River.”
Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, Gila River Indian Community
“Working on a sustainable Colorado River is fostering a cultural, spiritual, and meaningful awakening of our culture. This announcement is welcome news at a critical juncture in the effort to protect the Colorado River and secure our water future.”
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton
“Forward-thinking partnerships are essential to continuing the long-standing Arizona tradition of advancing smart water policy. The Walton Family Foundation’s significant and meaningful commitment to Colorado River system conservation shows how we can work together to safeguard against climate change and the continued drought that is directly impacting Lake Mead.”
Mississippi River Delta
WFF will dedicate approximately $15 million over two years to support restoration projects that will stem the devastating land loss crippling the coast of Louisiana, where every hour a football field worth of land disappears into the Gulf of Mexico. The loss of wetlands and coastal habitat has left the region vulnerable to storms and rising sea levels.
“New Orleans is a coastal city whose future depends on fixing decades of damage due to the cutting of canals, subsidence, and erosion,” said Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu. “We’re at an even greater risk due to sea level rise. Repairing what has been lost is not just important for Louisiana, but our country’s economy and security depends on our ports to transport goods, our seafood to eat and our oil and gas to fuel the nation. Together, we can build a better future for our coast, our people and the nation.”
The combination of bipartisan support for science-based solutions and funding for restoration means the region is ripe for meaningful, lasting change. The foundation’s investments will capitalize on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by supporting three core efforts:
Advance priority restoration projects and programs from the recently approved Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, with a target construction date of 2020;
Protect and maximize available restoration funds, develop innovative funding mechanisms and ensure funds are spent on restoration projects; and
Address future challenges through advances in science, modelling and mapping capabilities.
These efforts will ensure meaningful restoration of wetlands, oyster reefs, barrier islands and other coastal habitats that sustain the region’s critical seafood and tourism industries, and protects the city and port of New Orleans from devastating storms. The coast is home to a $34 billion tourism industry and 40 percent of all seafood harvested in the lower 48 states comes from the Gulf.
About the Walton Family Foundation and its Environment Initiatives
At the Walton Family Foundation, we believe that conservation solutions that make economic sense stand the test of time. We work to achieve lasting change by creating new and unexpected partnerships among conservation, business and community interests to build durable solutions to important problems.
Through its environment initiatives, the foundation is investing in two of the most important conservation issues of our time: restoring the health of the oceans through sustainable fisheries and preserving functioning rivers and the quality and availability of fresh water they provide. This work spans four initiatives: Oceans, Colorado River, Mississippi River and Coastal Gulf of Mexico. Learn more at: http://www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org.
This initial investment represents the first of what the foundation said will amount to more than $100 million by 2020. The foundation has also pledged $15 million to support the restoration of the Mississippi River Delta…
“The Colorado River basin is arguably one of the most important in the country, if not in the world,” Rice said. “And we use more than the river provides. We need to figure out how to do more with less water.”
The $20 million will be allocated toward different groups across the upper and lower river basins, including advocacy organizations such as American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation.
Ted Kowalski, Colorado River initiative lead for the Walton Family Foundation , said helping sustain the river is crucial to supporting both the environment and the economy.
“If you look at the last 17 years, we’ve seen a remarkable drought,” Kowalski said. “It’s the longest and worst since the turn of the 20th century. It’s one of the worst we’ve ever seen. If we were to see a drought like 2012, the reservoirs would continue to decline.”
While the region would take a huge economic hit, Kowalski said the environmental cost would be worse, and work in the region should be about preventing these problems rather than combating them head on.
“The environment would be the biggest loser,” Kowalski said. “We want to hold hydrology not in the throes, but in advance of this crisis.”