By Melissa Mitchell
It may be little consolation to victims of this year's round of spring flooding, but some of the lessons learned from the catastrophic flood of the Upper Mississippi River basin in 1993 may finally be sinking in, according to UI researcher Daniel Schneider.
"After the '93 floods, we saw that there was an opportunity to change things so the damage wouldn't be so great in the future," said Schneider, a professor of urban and regional planning and professional scientist in the Illinois Natural History Survey's Center for Aquatic Ecology. Schneider serves on a state-appointed advisory committee charged with recommending effective means of addressing flooding problems on the Illinois River. Among the most obvious solutions identified by the group, he said, is "in cooperation with landowners, restoring natural wetlands in the floodplain."
And while that may be a logical solution in theory, implementation is not simple. Aside from the economic and political ramifications associated with reclaiming bottomlands currently devoted to agricultural use, cultural perspectives must be considered as well. A long history of conflict over the use of the river has left emotional high-water marks on residents of river communities, Schneider said.
Schneider became interested in that history while studying current policies, practices and traditions along the Illinois River. "I knew that levees weren't always there," he said, which led him to wonder what land uses the systems of levees had replaced. Subsequent research prompted by that question revealed a deep history, which, Schneider said, is not well-known. He chronicled that history in "Enclosing the Floodplain: Resource Conflict on the Illinois River, 1880-1920," a paper published last year in the journal Environmental History. In it, and a related report presented to the American Society for Environmental History in March, Schneider documented a fierce and sometimes bloody struggle that pitted local fishermen and residents against landowners who sought to restrict access to bottomland ponds, lakes and sloughs previously regarded as "commons."
"Private hunting clubs and, later, drainage and levee districts, built fences and levees in the bottomlands of the Illinois River and appropriated the right to hunt, fish and gather resources," Schneider said. "The legacy of the levee districts on the Illinois River has been twofold: the deterioration of the natural resources of the river and increased flooding. Draining wetlands behind the levee districts ... led to steep declines in the river's fish and waterfowl populations. The expanding number of levee districts on the Illinois River also led to increasing flood heights as the river was constrained to a narrower channel."
Today, Schneider sees signs indicating that the wake-up calls sent out
by the 1993 floods are being picked up. For instance, he cites the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service's acquisition of the Thompson Lake Levee District
on the Illinois River. The area is being converted for use as a wildlife
refuge and recreation area, and, as a bonus, may even prove to be a boon
to the local economy, he said.