The Natural and Beneficial Functions
of the Floodplains
It is difficult to think of flood plains without also thinking of flooding. And nobody likes it when their home or business or neighborhood gets flooded. But flood plain areas are now also recognized as having an intrinsic value of their own as a part of the interconnected ecosystem and an influential role in increasing a community’s quality of life. For example, the recognized benefits of a naturally functioning flood plain include the storage and conveyance of flood waters, the recharging of groundwater, the maintenance of surface water quality, and the provision of habitats for fish and wildlife. These areas also provide diverse recreational opportunities, scenic value, and a source of community identity and pride. Clearly the potential gains of transforming stream and river flood plains from problem areas into value-added community assets are substantial.
Floods have caused a greater loss of life and property and have disrupted more families and communities in the United States than all other natural hazards combined. Despite the expenditure of tens of billions of tax dollars for structural measures, such as dams, levees, and channel projects to try to control flood waters, flood losses continue to rise. Thus, a new way of thinking about flood plain management has emerged in recent years that focuses on hazard mitigation. Flood hazard mitigation places greater emphasis on trying to adapt to the natural phenomena of flooding such as by maintaining flood hazard areas as open space, and less on trying to control floodwaters.
The Village of South Holland is working to improve the flood plain for natural and recreational purposes. Gouwens Park and Sports Complex has a wetland, and a bikeway has been constructed. The Village is cleaning up the banks and channels both for flood protection and appearance purposes. The Gouwens Park wetland mitigation site consists of approximately 5 acres of native prairie, native wetland plantings, and open water. The site will remain as a natural wetland/prairie complex on the park property. In its natural setting, the site is used by a variety of wildlife and could easily be used for environmental education. In addition, the area undergoes flooding from the adjacent river and was designed to function in that manner. Who knows? Someday the river front may be the main attraction in town.
It is important to recognize that the flood plains serve many functions besides carrying or storing floodwaters. Thus, we should keep the water as clean as possible to help fish and other wildlife. Here are some things residents can do to protect the river:
- Bag or compost all yard waste.
- Take used motor oil to a licensed recycling plant.
- Do not wash paints, thinners, anti-freeze, and other chemicals into the street. Take leftovers to a household hazardous waste collection center.
- Cover bare soil with a mulch and seed it as soon as possible to minimize erosion.
- Carefully apply lawn chemicals and limit the amount of fertilizers and pesticides being used.
- Keep as much green areas as possible as natural or man-made drainage swales. Plant plenty of trees and shrubs.
Watersheds—The Big Picture
While it is important for communities to plan and take responsibility for the land uses that occur in their own flood plains, it must be recognized that flood level and water quality can be very much affected by land use activities occurring elsewhere in the watershed. Land uses along tributaries are likely to have an impact on downstream communities. Wise management of tributaries is therefore extremely important, as their protection can yield benefits for the entire network. Broad planning efforts among communities with a watershed can thus have far-reaching advantages.