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Supporting Water Projects that Communities Want

When communities are involved in key water infrastructure projects, like with Kansas City's Blue River channel modification project, the Federal Government can speed up project approvals, cut costs, and support projects with the greatest economic and community benefits.

Ed. Note: This post introduces you to Lynda Hoffman, President of the Missouri and Associated Rivers Coalition (MOARC), a regional nonprofit promoting the beneficial use of water and related land resources.

In 2007, the Corps of Engineers had completed nearly 10 of 12 miles of channel modification for the Blue River when the City of Kansas City adopted a Green Solutions resolution recognizing the City’s water bodies as vital and valuable natural resources.  Building on their strong foundation of partnership, the local and federal sponsors for the project worked together to rethink the work yet to be done on the channel.  The result: in lieu of massive habitat-disrupting and expensive concrete structures, more habitat-friendly environmental features were incorporated into the remainder of the project, and at a cost savings of over $20 million.  “Turning the Blue River Green” is a successful example of a locally led planning initiative and the construction of a federally authorized project coming together in an innovative way that achieved an outcome desirable to the local community and the Federal agencies involved.  The Obama Administration’s Principles, Requirements and Guidelines (PR&G) for federal water investments are intended to support these locally led efforts. 

CEQ PR&G Blue River

When a channel modification project along the Blue River in Kansas City began, community involvement helped replace the project's planned use of habitat-disrupting and expensive concrete structures (left) with more habitat-friendly environmental features that saved the project more than $20 million (right). Photos courtesy of USACE – Kansas City District.

As communities across the nation suffer effects of extreme weather and the resultant financial and societal costs become understood, local officials are leading efforts to prepare for the impacts of climate change.  A group of policymakers in the central U.S. have formed a Heartland Climate Adaptation/Resilience Project to identify long-term effects and help communities get ready for and cope with increased flooding, water shortages and other potential consequences.  Another promising initiative, the creation of a regional Resilience Working Group, resulted in the Greater Kansas City region being named a U.S. “Climate Action Champion” community by the Obama Administration.  Smart local and regional planning such as this, when integrated with the decision-making processes for Federal investment, can lead to projects that are developed and implemented in a balanced manner, mindful of both economic and environmental benefits while also serving to enhance community resilience.

There are a lot of places in the Midwest that were founded as river towns, including Kansas City, whose ongoing identity will be forever entwined with its rivers.  The Kansas and Missouri Rivers and others throughout this part of the country opened it to trade and settlement, first serving as navigable routes and then to meet developing municipal and industrial needs.  There are many economic benefits derived from our waterways, like the transport of an abundant harvest from the nation’s bread basket.  But there’s also potential harm from an ongoing flood threat that evolves over time due to several factors, including development trends and climate change.  As a community threaded with rivers and streams, Kansas City recognizes that threat and through policy, planning and projects has taken steps such as their stream setback ordinance to reduce flood risk while also valuing waterways. 

A saying often used in our region, “If you don’t like the weather, stick around, it’ll change,” may be truer than ever.  In a study that looked at deviations from long-term trends, Kansas City was identified as the most populous city with the most unpredictable weather.  Going forward it will be even more important for our local leaders to be able to work cooperatively with Federal agencies involved in managing water resources under a framework flexible enough to respond to evolving needs in a changing environment, but rigorous enough to produce repeatable results and supportive of informed decision-making that considers social, economic and environmental benefits.

Lynda Hoffman is President of the Missouri and Associated Rivers Coalition (MOARC)