Upper Mississippi River named America’s Most Endangered River for 2020

The Upper Mississippi River needs a Water Management Plan.

This post written by Christine Favilla, Three Rivers Project Co-coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Piasa Palisades Group headquartered out of Alton, Illinois.

American Rivers named the Upper Mississippi River America’s Most Endangered River® of 2020, citing the grave threat that climate change and poor river and watershed management pose to public safety. Though we are encouraged by the increasingly overt actions of cities along the Mississippi River to address these issues sensibly, American Rivers and its partners, including the Sierra Club, are calling on state and federal leaders in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin to support solutions that hold more water on the landscape and give the rivers room to flood safely.

Climate disruption in the Upper Midwest is driving more intense precipitation events that are causing more frequent and prolonged flooding, like what the Metro East region experienced in 2019. Meteorologists continue to warn that major flooding is still likely this spring as the nation reels from the impacts of COVID-19. Communities along the Upper Mississippi are woefully unprepared for the new climate reality that puts people, habitat, and infrastructure at risk. And the coronavirus threat throws a harsh light on the Upper Mississippi River flood risk management strategy, known as “every man for himself”: a strategy that relies on temporary flood defenses built largely by volunteers with the goal of keeping the river out of its floodplain.

“Flood season is here, and it is falling right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Please help us urge governors to request special mission assignments for USACE to set up contagion control around flood fighting efforts.”

Christine Favilla, Three Rivers Project Co-coordinator, Sierra Club Piasa Palisades

Making room for rivers to flood is the future of flood risk management policy. Getting people out of harm’s way and adapting our landscape to allow flood water to go “here” and not “there” takes the pressure off levees that protect people and critical infrastructure. While flood insurance and risk management reforms have focused on the urban floodplain, more attention needs to be focused on flood damage reduction.

The magnitude of major flood events in the Mississippi basin has increased mostly caused by the combination of river engineering and climate change. Throughout the basin, 40 to 90 percent of the land has been developed and almost every river has been dammed, leveed, and/or constricted, including the Upper Mississippi itself. Almost the entire Upper Mississippi River watershed has also been developed to enhance agricultural productivity including extensive use of drainage systems used to move water off the landscape as quickly as possible. This development exacerbates flood damages by preventing the landscape from naturally retaining and slowing the release of rainfall and impacts the river’s ability to filter pollution, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Poor water quality can seriously harm drinking water supplies, and can make fishing, swimming and boating dangerous.

Urbanized areas, including those located behind levees, are at particular risk. These risks often fall disproportionately on communities of color and/or low-income due to ongoing institutional injustices, like redlining. Even today, the most effective flood risk reduction solutions, like home buyouts, are not offered to communities of color at the same rates enjoyed by the white population. Flood management decisions throughout the basin are made in a piecemeal and siloed manner. Individuals, cities, counties, drainage districts and states all act in near isolation to protect themselves during flood events, with little to no regard for the possible impacts on their neighbors.

Public Works Departments in the St. Louis Metro East are the front liners most likely to combat the rising waters this year with temporary walls and sandbags. We believe the scientists who are keeping us safe during this pandemic, and we must listen to them. We also need to protect those most vulnerable — both from the virus but also the need to ensure people can safeguard themselves and others without economic fear, such as downtown businesses that may get inundated with water on top of already being closed due to the pandemic. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a grim light on the vulnerability of relying on resource-intensive flood control infrastructure. Floods don’t stop because people are sick and money is stretched thin. Flood fighting is not sustainable. Lives are at stake. We must change course,” said Olivia Dorothy, Upper Mississippi River Basin Director for American Rivers. “Our own river and watershed management decisions are making these disasters worse. The good news is, there are proven solutions that are protecting cities while giving rivers room to flood safely. We can protect our communities and our environment.”

The combination of land use change, artificial cropland drainage, climate change and floodplain management has fundamentally altered the flow of the river. As a result, the river is less stable and more prone to catastrophic flooding. The 2019 Midwest flood broke records, with homes, farms, roads and businesses under water for nearly 100 days on the upper Mississippi River.  According to NOAA, the 2019 flooding caused four deaths and $6.2 billion in damage. Yet leaders across the region are making the problem worse, building higher levees, allowing risky development in floodplains, increasing farm and wetland drainage, hardening stormwater infrastructure, and failing to plan for the future. 

Levees will always be a critical flood risk management tool, protecting heavily populated areas and vital infrastructure. The demands for more levees on our major rivers make the problem worse as new levees raise the river stage and velocity, making the next flood worse. Therefore, despite the fact that spending on flood control projects has steadily increased, flood damages continue to grow.  In the St. Louis Metro East, the Sny Island Levee Drainage District protects almost 60 miles of Mississippi River floodplain agricultural land from south of Quincy, IL to Belleview, IL. Since 1998 the District has illegally elevated their levees to provide protection from the 100-year flood without required permits and without mitigating for increased flood heights caused by these elevations. As a result, nearby communities in Illinois and Missouri are at increased risk of flooding. 

Flood season is here, and it is falling right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Please help us urge governors to request special mission assignments for USACE to set up contagion control around flood fighting efforts.


American Rivers worked on this designation with the following partners:

  • Prairie Rivers Network
  • Missouri Coalition for the Environment
  • Great Rivers Habitat Alliance
  • Izaak Walton League of America
  • Friends of the Mississippi River
  • Mississippi River Network
  • National Wildlife Federation
  • Piasa Palisades Group of the Sierra Club

Photos of volunteers sandbagging the Mississippi River next to the Alton Farmers Market in June 2019: Andrew Dobson Photography