Elbow Room for Missouri's Great Rivers

If you stand at the southeastern tip of Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in St. Charles County and look north, south or west, you can see land that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark scanned as they set out on their Voyage of Discovery in 1804. You can see duck hunting clubs and habitat for deer, turkey, bald eagles and other wildlife. You'll see farmland abundant with agricultural crops. It's the same land that held 260 billion gallons of water during the Great Flood of 1993, saving the St. Louis metro area from a calamity too enormous to contemplate, much less calculate.

Come back to the same spot 20 years from now and you may see 80,000 acres of developed real estate. If that seems a bit far-fetched, consider the forces arrayed against the cultural, historical and natural values of this unique patch of real estate.

A self-perpetuating cycle of destruction

Flood plain development is just a form of urban sprawl, and neither problem is unique to St. Louis. Many of the factors that contribute to development in flood plains are the same ones that drive urban sprawl and the loss of green space outside flood plains.

As cities exhaust their developable space, marginal land, including areas that flood periodically, become more desirable for development. This pushes the value of land above its value for agriculture, recreation or other non developed uses.

Some people who own such property may hold out for a while, but eventually their heirs or others come into possession of the land. Some who wish to maximize their assets sell the land to people who want to use it for the most profitable purposes and so are able to pay the highest price.

The United States loses more than a million acres of farmland to urban sprawl annually. A study by the American Farmland Trust of Washington, D.C. predicts that the United States could become a net importer of food as early as 2050.

In flood plains, this progression is self-accelerating. As buildings spring up in a flood prone area, pressure builds to protect them with levees. After levees are built, the area is assumed to be safe from flooding. This can encourage more development.

The flood plains of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers were among the last land in the St. Louis area to be developed. Eventually, however, increases in real estate prices made it economical to build