The Earth Always Wins

Most of the time, I live about 2100 feet from the Des Moines River. Right now, a levee keeps me approximately 375 feet away from the river. However, I received a notice earlier this year that about 10 square feet of the northeast corner of my living room is in a flood plain. It wasn’t that way when I bought the house. Lines are moving.

Before I bought the house, the basement had been flooded. That was in 1993. Of course, that was a 500-year flood. So, what did I have to worry about? In 2008, I had just shy of three feet of water in the basement. Since then, the levee has been raised. To be accurate, the government (I assume city, but it could have been the county) raised the levee while the water was rising at a pace faster than heavy equipment could add to the top. The brave construction workers won.

Before it was removed by the graffiti police, a piece of wisdom on a pole near my home said: “The earth always wins!” I don’t think I should take any chances this time around. I am required to buy flood insurance because I have a mortgage on the house.

I don’t understand. I’m confused. Can’t I just expect the federal government to jump in and make me whole again after the waters have subsided? Isn’t that the way it works?

Several farmers in the western part of the state along the Missouri River have sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), claiming “flood control is no longer the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ top priority,” that “the agency is focused on slowing the river and restoring habitat that protects the endangered pallid sturgeon and shorebirds like the piping plover and interior least tern.”

Residents of western Fremont County are blaming the U.S. Corps of Engineers for mismanaging the Missouri River. U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) also has chimed in. Both are accusing the Corps of directing most of its attention to wildlife, and not enough focus on its top priority – flood control.

How quickly some people forget. Many Iowans, if old enough, will remember the floods of 1993. The community of Hamburg was flooded that year, along with many other communities throughout Iowa that are situated by a river. Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Davenport, and numerous other cities, large and small, were affected by catastrophic flooding that year.

In 1993, Hamburg wasn’t flooded by the waters of the Missouri River, but because of a “drainage ditch [that] carried water from a large area north of the Hamburg area.” That water “backed up behind levees at the confluence of the Missouri and Nishnabotna Rivers, where Hamburg is located. The water from the drainage ditch could not escape into the river when the gates were closed to keep the river water out of the area.”

Former Congressman Neal Smith personally looked into the situation and did what he could to help the residents of Hamburg and the surrounding area. He spoke with General Geneva, the top general in the corps, and found out that the corps had “made a complete study of the area in 1986 and developed plans to install two large pumps, which would be used to pump water back over the levees and into the Missouri River. “However, under procedures the Reagan and Bush administrations had adopted to prevent such projects from being federally funded, those plans had not made it through the bureaucracy to the top office in Washington, D.C., for action.”

Congressman Smith sought and gained immediate approval for an appropriation of about $800,000 in federal funds to get those pumps Hamburg and Fremont County needed. “To qualify such a project, there must be a local sponsor such as the county or city. That local sponsor in this case would need to spend a comparatively minuscule sum to launch the project. [Congressman Smith believed] it was $60,000. In 1994 there was no flood threat, and the local sponsors then chose to not even do their small part to get the pumps into place quickly.”

I can look out my front door and see two pumps on top of the levee across the street from me. But is it enough?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Levee Portfolio Report for 2018 says: “No levee is flood-proof. Levees reduce the risk of flooding, but no levee system can eliminate all flood risk. A levee is generally designed to exclude floodwater from the leveed area over a limited range of flood events.”

This isn’t by far the first flood to hit the southwestern corner of the state. Residents must be ignoring the USACE’s reports. “Levees that experience long duration flood events are more likely to develop performance issues associated with breach prior to overtopping failure modes such as embankment and foundation seepage and piping.” [Piping is a “system of fissures through which water can travel inside the levee. Piping can be created by animal burrows or the gradual flow of water over time, thereby eroding tunnels inside the levee.”]

The USACE is not solely responsible for everything on both sides of the levee. It’s a partnership, like the estimated 11 million people who work or live behind levees in the United States. Stakeholders have a responsibility, too. “Levees in the USACE levee portfolio vary widely in age, design and construction practices, and flood regimes (e.g., coastal, river, flashy or long duration). The average age of levees in the USACE portfolio is roughly 50 years.” The levees along the Missouri River have been in place without much change for longer than the normal lifespan.

As a youngster, I remember the old men around town talking about the changes the USACE made to the Missouri River. “Made it a funnel,” one guy said. “You can’t harness all that water to go straight down the river without having some area that can allow it to sit for a while.” These old timers were talking around me and all of us lived just about two counties away from the Missouri and had the Loess Hills in between. Those old-timers, who are most likely dead now, predicted this over 50 years ago.

I don’t get it. The lawsuit by farmers in southwest Iowa claim that the USACE are slowing the river. I’m not an engineer, but as I see it, moving levees back from the edge of the river to make it shallower and slower would appear to make the river more capable of accommodating fluctuations.

No matter what some flooding victims may think, earth, wind and fire are impossible to tame under circumstances in which any of the three can get out of hand.

I will be purchasing some flood insurance in the near future, as much as I hate to do it. It’s not to protect me as much as it is to protect the mortgage holder. I’ll never be able to be whole again. I will try to be prepared and move things out when I see signs of high water. After all, the earth always wins!



Smith, Neal, Mr. Smith Went to Washington. Ames, Iowa. Iowa State University Press. 1996. Pp 288-290.

Eller, Donnelle. Iowa farmers: Corps prioritizes endangered species. The Des Moines Sunday Register. March 31, 2019. Pp 1A & 14A. United States Army Corps of Engineers Levee Portfolio Report. March 2018. Pp. 8, 16-17,

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