Dave Helling

Who pays for floods? With climate change, it’s a question that’s about to get harder

The 2019 spring has brought another disastrous flood. Trillions of gallons of snow melt and late winter downpours are spilling over levees into farms and small communities up and down the Missouri River.

The water has risen in Kansas City, too, but has caused much less destruction. Why? Taxpayers have spent billions of dollars over the years to build dikes and drainage to keep the area dry.

It has worked, to a point, and not just on the river. Dangerous floods along Brush Creek have been dramatically reduced. Turkey Creek, which used to spill onto Southwest Boulevard, now trickles through a rebuilt tunnel into the Kansas River.

The Blue River is far less threatening than it used to be. The concrete levees along the Missouri River hold back water that once drowned the bottoms, east and west.

Has it been worth it? That’s a more complicated question.

Not everyone thinks spending on flood control is a great idea, an argument that’s about to get much louder.

The federal government, for example, will pay more than $450 million for remaining design and construction work on the levees along the Missouri and Kansas rivers downtown. That’s great if you live or work there. If you live in, say, Lee’s Summit, that spending may seem far less important.

Taxpayers have kicked in more than $150 million to fix flooding along Turkey Creek. You could make the case that it would have been cheaper to buy homes and businesses in the flood plain, demolish them, and throw down grass seed. That’s exactly what a city official told me should happen more than two decades ago.

If this seems brutal, remember this: Flood control engineers do this kind of cost-benefit triage all the time. That’s why farms and small towns within the flood plain are wrecked when the river rises. It costs more to protect those farms than they’re worth.

But the debate won’t be limited to farms. As climate change provokes more storms and floods, it may become too expensive to hold all of the water back anywhere.

A few weeks ago, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed extending lower Manhattan up to 500 feet to offset the danger from global melting and rising sea water. The plan is to literally dump dirt into the water.

It will cost $10 billion. “It should be backed by big federal dollars,” de Blasio wrote.

Why should Missouri’s taxpayers subsidize New York’s flood control? Might it be cheaper to buy nearby buildings, bulldoze them, and throw down grass seed?

We’ll soon have this conversation across the country. People who live on hills will be asked to subsidize flood insurance, or emergency repairs, for those who choose to live on the beach, or along the river. In turn, beachcombers will be asked to subsidize homeowners in Tornado Alley, or cabins in fire-prone California.

Climate change will alter our nation in many ways. Chief among them: an increasingly bitter argument over our responsibilities to each other, and our personal choices.

This week’s Missouri River flood didn’t cause a great deal of damage here, but it is a warning: A fight is coming over how to stop the water, and who will pay to get it done.

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Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.