When the Levee Breaks will St. Paul be Ready?

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
When the levee breaks, I’ll have no place to stay.”

-Excerpt from “When the Levee Breaks,” a traditional country blues song first recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie

Warmer air also can hold more moisture, leading to more frequent and severe storms, which [will] overwhelm aging storm water systems across the region. Scientists estimate the annual cost of retrofitting urban storm water systems will exceed $500 million for the Midwest by the end of the century.”

-Tony Briscoe, Federal climate change report paints grim picture for Midwest, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 26, 2018

I. Storms Keep Coming: Are We Ready?

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Image: NOAA Photo Library (www.photolib.noaa.gov)

In 1929, Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie recorded a traditional blues song about the 1927 Mississippi Valley flood called “When the Levee Breaks.” Good blues songs invariably hold a reminder of an important truth, even if it is in a sample and MCA raps over the top of it. I’ve always liked “When the Levee Breaks” for that reason. In the case of a song about a hundred-year flood, the hidden message is as timeless today as it was nearly 100 years ago in 1927. It’s a simple idea: when the water comes you better be ready.

Whether you want to believe it or not, climate change is here. This is no longer a future event: the climate has changed and we are living through the consequences of that change. The evidence for this is insurmountable, especially in the past year.

Look at New York. In the big city, huge storms have overwhelmed the city’s subway infrastructure. To make matters worse, the subway in the Big Apple is old. Emergency level floods are wreaking havoc, both financially and physically, on the city’s infrastructure.

A similar situation continues to happen here in the last city of the east. Luckily for us, our tunnels are only full of old ‘20s gangster secrets and our trains run above ground in the light of day. Unluckily for us, our city is built upon limestone which puts our aging civic infrastructure—old infrastructure just like in New York—at a high risk for failure.

Said infrastructure has already failed several times in recent memory. Because of soil erosion, a gigantic sinkhole opened in the middle of a busy east-side street in 2014. The result was a fountain of human poop spraying two stories high. It cost the city close to $3 million.

More recently and also because of soil erosion, the bluffs above Wabasha collapsed into the city street. When I reached out to city officials, early estimates of damages were between $2-3 million. Notably, this is not the first time the bluffs have collapsed due to soil erosion. In 2013, two children were killed during a landslide. All of these events are products of large rain storms producing erosion. These expensive and tragic events are sure to continue without a reasoned municipal response.

We, as a municipality, are well aware of this imminent danger. St. Paul’s recent Climate Action Resiliency Plan says it plainly: “Increased . . . intensity of precipitation . . . put[s] additional pressure on the city’s . . . drainage infrastructure.” In the face of the large storms followed by long droughts that we are currently experiencing, the question remains: what are we going to do about it?

II. Concretely Impractical Solutions

Abraham Maslow famously opined, “if the only tool you have is a hammer [it is tempting] to treat everything as if it were a nail.” One of the biggest departments in any city is public works. One of the biggest tools public works has is the ability to construct new projects. It would be easy for the city to presume their biggest tool will solve the problem of climate change. Indeed, solving problems by building infrastructure has a long history stemming from Richard Daley’s machine politics which famously tagged the windy city as “the city that works.

Yet, a construction-centered approach to climate change will not “just work.” Philosophically, creating more infrastructure to deal with human occupancy ignores that humans created the problem the municipality is trying to solve. Massive water runoff did not birth themselves out of the prairies on the seventh day of creation. Rather, massive water runoff is a product of removing the prairie and replacing it with mono-cultured grass lawns.

Further, even if we do create more capacity for bigger storm water drainage, this does not solve the fundamental problem of water runoff. Larger capacity drainage merely allows larger quantities of water to wash away larger quantities of topsoil. The reactive solution to build infrastructure actually worsens the problem in the long run.

I propose we seek a proactive solution. Perhaps instead of reactively paving the city to spite Joni Mitchell, we should truly be practical and address the problem at the source.

III. An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

Since the dawn of our species, water has been an essential component of how humankind finds or coaxes food from the ground through agriculture. We should not ignore water’s intimate connection with the land that grows us our very sustenance. Rather, we should embrace the land use practices that keep water in living things like plants and gardens.

This is not a new idea. Native leaders have given explicit land use guidance to do just what is described above: Slowing down “the transport of water through the landscape increases water retention, providing opportunities for the water to be used and stored.” This guidance is wise for both individual action and municipal policy.

St. Paul, to its credit, has a history of individual action on private property from the work of the Capitol Region Watershed District. This organization has utilized the collective power of citizens to protect our land and water. However, the growing threat of climate change will require a vastly scaled up solution to deal with larger levels of water runoff.

The unique needs of our city necessitate a municipal solution. St. Paul has geographically unique risks because the majority of the city sits high upon river bluffs. Most of the land on top of the bluffs is used for residential purposes. Below these residential areas, generally, is St. Paul’s business district and some of its industrial district.

Video source: author. (Data from St. Paul GIS, USGS)

Underneath the residential areas upon the bluffs is limestone. These rock are particularly susceptible to erosion from heavy rains. Because most of our residential neighborhoods have grass lawns that do not retain water, heavy rains go through the soil into the rock bed.

Limestone in particular is especially susceptible to “chemical weathering,” a process where acid in rain literally dissolves the rock. When water moves from streets through lawns and dissolves the limestone bed beneath the surface, the result is often catastrophic bluff collapses and sinkholes.

Because of this, there is no good reason to continue to encourage residential property owners to plant grass. Rather, it makes much more sense to encourage our citizens to plant native gardens that keep water either in rain barrels or in gardens. Smart cities are realizing policies encouraging this practice can save huge amounts of money on infrastructural maintenance.

Philadelphia recently implemented such a policy. The city of brotherly love created a chapter in their municipal ordinances that guides developers to build projects that intentionally keep rainwater in gardens as opposed to the sewer. At the very least, Saint Paul should adopt such guidance in our municipal code.

This is one of my rain barrels. Friends of the Mississippi River has a program where you can pick up what was once a 55-gallon soda barrel and use it as a rain barrel. The plants dig it. Image: author

However, St. Paul should do more than just establish guidelines for new construction. Given that climate change is here, we need to create incentives and grants for residents to use green storm water management techniques like rain barrels and rain gardens.

Academic studies postulate that a single rain barrel can increase water-saving efficiency by up to 50% in the mid-western United States. The EPA has long held that rain barrels are an excellent storm water management tool.

The city of Portland, OR has piloted a program to target erosion using this EPA guidance. Portland cleverly realizes that the municipality has control over water billing. If a private residential land owner uses rain barrels or plants a rain garden to prevent stress on municipal storm water infrastructure, they receive a significant discount on their municipal storm water bill. In this way, the city encourages private citizens to prevent harm from ever occurring by redirecting water to useful purposes.

The city of St. Paul has a similar program, but only for nonresidential properties. Given that most of the limestone beds in St. Paul are beneath residential property, this does very little to help our erosion problem. To prevent future expensive catastrophes and combat erosion, St. Paul should expand incentives to residential areas.

Beyond offering incentives, the city could potentially offer grants so residents could plant gardens and install rain barrels at no cost. Congress recently passed H.R.1319, aka the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Within this bill is money allocated to local municipalities to improve infrastructure. This explicitly includes local water and sewer services. We should utilize this money to prevent damages to our aging water infrastructure by minimizing the load it will carry from storms which continually increase in size.

An ancillary benefit of rainwater collection is that it facilitates bee partying. Since installing our barrels, our bee balm has grown to be my height. An army of bumble bees takes to the garden every summer like it’s a dance floor playing a hot single. Image: author

We can use federal infrastructure money to save our infrastructure using beautiful native gardens. Imagine what our city could look like if every boulevard on every block was a garden. Feasibly, we could reduce stress to our civic water infrastructure by 50%, save the city money, and make St. Paul one of the most beautiful places in America. Our challenge is a question of hope: are we willing to accept a beautiful and creative solution to climate change?

It is time to listen to the wisdom of blues songs and native people. The City of St. Paul should pass municipal ordinances providing incentives for green residential land use practice. Further, the City of St. Paul should use federal funds from HR1319 to give residents gardens and rain barrels to prevent future damage to civic water infrastructure. This is an old idea, but the song remains the same. We can keep the levee from breaking if we act now.

Daniel Choma

About Daniel Choma

Daniel Choma is a community advocate, a jazz musician, and a former bible salesman. He rides bikes, plays drums, and tells jokes. He can consume a bag of jelly beans faster than almost anyone.