Flood Management Expert Gerry Galloway Discusses Future of Flood Control Strategies

Galloway says flood management policy progress is slow.

by / January 12, 2009
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Gerry Galloway is one of the most accomplished flood management experts in the country. He was a presidential appointee to the Mississippi River Commission and in 1994 was assigned to lead the White House committee in assessing the causes of the Great Flood of 1993 along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The resulting recommendations, known as the Galloway Report, encouraged all levels of government and citizens to take responsibility for flood plain management.

Galloway retired from the military as a brigadier general in 1995. He's currently a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland.

Q: How much progress has been made in flood management policy since the Galloway Report in 1994?
There's been very, very slow progress. I guess in the political system in which we operate, it is to be expected. The problem is the decisions that have to be made are all tough, local decisions and the question is: Are they enforced by the federal government, are they enforced by the state, or do the locals do it themselves?

In [California's] Central Valley, communities were allowing development in the floodplain and with developers putting in levees that were not very good; then something happens and the people get wet, and they turn to the state and the federal government.

Q: Should terms such as "100-year-flood protection" be eliminated?
That's a lousy term. The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority in Louisiana just sent a resolution to the National Academy [of Sciences], the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA saying it just confuses people. Come up with something different.

Nevertheless, 100 years means a one-in-four chance in the life of a 30-year mortgage that the levee is going to be topped or there's going to be a flood.

The Dutch have on the Rhine River 1,250- to 2,000-year protection, and on the coastline they have 10,000-year protection. The Japanese have 10,000-year protection on the coast.

Q: What should be done about communities that are already built up in the floodplain?
One of the continuing problems is we're not willing to have tough love and say if you're flooded and could have bought insurance but didn't, you're out of luck.

Less than 10 percent of the people in the Midwest in 2008 had flood insurance. How can we justify going back and spending federal funds to help those people when they aren't willing to help themselves?


Q: Is retaining water in the upper watersheds a viable option around the country?
You can do that by wetland restoration, prairie pothole restoration. You can do that with dams; a dam is not a four-letter word. You can build small dams or farm ponds. There are pros and cons to those.

People keep saying the reason we had all this flooding is because the wetlands have disappeared. Yes and no. When you have a giant flood -- a 500-year flood -- and it rains and it slowly fills up every loose piece of space that exists on the soil, and after a week or so the ground is saturated and then the big rains come, there's no place for it to go.