The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a decade of "rubber stamp" permitting policies are at least partly to blame for millions of dollars in flood-related damage around the nation, according to a Sierra Club analysis released in February.
Nationwide, the Corps granted 99 percent of the wetland construction permits it received from 1989 to 1998, according to the Sierra Club report Permitting Disaster.
During that same period, floods have killed at least 947 people and destroyed $45 billion in homes, businesses and crops nationwide, according to the report. In Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, at least 95 percent of the wetland permits were granted, while floods killed 113 people and cost more than $150 million.
Wetlands help prevent flooding by retaining water that would otherwise reach a river or stream, the report said.
But the report doesn't tell the whole story, according to Jim Townsend, chief of the Louisville Army Corps of Engineers Regulatory Branch.
While Townsend didn't doubt the Corps approved nearly all of the permits it received, he said that doesn't necessarily mean there's been reckless permitting at the expense of the environment.
The Corps often requires developers to create other water retention areas to replace the storage capacity of the wetlands they fill in, Townsend said. Plus, many developers begin working with the Corps months before they submit an application, which reduces the number of rejected permits.
And the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), not the Army Corps, regulates development on flood plains, which is a significant factor in flood damage.
The Corps regulates all rivers, their tributaries, wetlands and coastal waters, from Sharon Creek to the Everglades.
"We didn't feel that part of the story was told at all," Townsend said. "The Corps agrees that it is not a very good idea to develop in the flood plains."
FEMA allows development on flood plains if the development doesn't raise the 100-year flood level by more than one foot, Townsend said. That means if a river's 100-year flood level is 50 feet, a developer can't fill in land that would push the river to more than 51 feet.
The Corps, in fact, recently strengthened its wetland permits. In June, developers will have to get a separate permit for each half-acre of wetlands they want to fill in, rather than one acre. That continues a decades-long trend of decreasing the area one permit covers. Twenty years ago there was no size limit for each permit, Townsend said.
But what about the built-out places such as Hamilton County, where most wetlands disappeared decades ago? There are already about 2,800 structures in flood plains here, according to Hally Utrata-Halcomb, district administrator for the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District.
People forget that flooding is a natural process, especially on flood plains near streams and rivers, said Robin Corathers, executive director of the Mill Creek Restoration Project. And if parts of the flood plain are covered in concrete or other impervious surfaces, more water will reach the stream faster, increasing the chances of flooding, she said.
"I can't say it's anybody's fault," Utrata-Halcomb said. "People didn't think about it until it became a problem. Without a lot of money, you can't do much."
After 1998 flooding from Mill Creek's West Fork caused $1 million in damage, Colerain Township received a $1.3 million FEMA grant to make the community more disaster-resistant. Part of the money is being used for voluntary buyouts for 16 home owners near Mill Creek who have been flood-plagued for decades, according to Frank Birkenhauer, assistant Colerain Township administrator.
Flooding has worsened in Evendale and Sharonville in the last 10 to 15 years. Now both communities experience 25- and 50-year floods or worse at least once a year, according to Christina Pope, assistant to Sharonville's mayor.
Some in the two communities have blamed Butler County development for the flooding. Others call attention to an unfinished Army Corps project to dredge and concrete-channelize Mill Creek that stopped short of Evendale; now water in the creek can't travel through the communities fast enough.
For Sharonville, the problem is more complex than moving homes: About $1 million in Sharonville's tax revenues come from businesses located in the Mill Creek flood plain, according to Pope. Many of them have been there for decades.
"(Moving them) is not really an option," Pope said. "They would never see the return."
The Army Corps is considering some sort of project to relieve Mill Creek flooding. Evendale Councilmember Catherine Hartman just hopes it's a more natural solution than the concrete channels the Corps built on the lower part of the creek.
Hartman said the Army Corps and local governments should try to address what exacerbates flooding rather than simply accommodate flooding with concrete channels. ©