A river runs through it

The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 started a national conversation about levees.

Suddenly, a lot of people who couldn’t tell the difference between a levee and a highway berm wanted to know if these manmade barriers were high enough and strong enough to withstand the next big wave from Mother Nature.

While most of the attention focused on the plight of New Orleans, levees along the flood-prone Mississippi River also drew their share of the national spotlight. The Army Corps of Engineers marched up and down the big river, surveying tools at the ready.

They didn’t have much to do in Davenport, Iowa. Like just about every other town on the banks of the Mississippi, Davenport (population 100,000) has a flood problem. What Davenport doesn’t have is a levee.

As a fascinating story in today’s Wall Street Journal details, the city fathers in Davenport have wrestled with the question of whether to build a levee for almost 50 years—they even received authorization from Congress in 1970 to build one—and have finally decided that they are better off without one.

Instead, the city bought out low-lying homes and businesses and tailored its waterfront development plans to activities and structures that will not be disrupted by the occasionally unruly river, but rather will be enhanced by its magnificent presence.

Today, Davenport’s waterfront includes a downtown park with an historic bandshell and a minor league ballpark protected by its own floodwall. A large art museum was built atop a flood-ready parking lot. A new skateboard park was placed next to the river—when the river rises, the boarders just scoot uptown and wait for the crest to pass. A few passes with mops and brooms, and everyone is showing off their moves again.

According to the Journal report, the river-friendly planning has been so successful that Davenport and its neighbor on the other side of the Mississippi, Rock Island, IL, are teaming up to develop another stretch of riverfront with special landscaping and materials that will allow the water to come in and make cleanups easier. They call their plan RiverVision, and are confident that the attractive waterfront also will draw new businesses and residences to their downtown areas.

Davenport and Rock Island have asked for $10 million in federal funding for RiverVision. If you think that’s too much, consider this: It would cost at least $55 million to build a levee on just one side of Old Man River.

Levees? We don’t need no stinking levees!