Preventing Floods, Risking Access: Infrastructure as Public Space in Miles City, Montana

Authors: Nicolas Bergmann*, Montana State University, Jamie McEvoy, Montana State University, Elizabeth Shanahan, Montana State University, Eric Raile, Montana State University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Infrastructure; Public Space; Flood Insurance; Levee; Yellowstone River
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Gallier B, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Located at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone Rivers, Miles City, Montana lies squarely within a hydrologic floodplain. After significant historical flood events, the Work Progress Administration’s 1936 construction of a levee decreased the frequency of major flooding. As an integral piece of the community’s cultural landscape, the levee or “dike”—as it is colloquially called—serves important community functions. Aside from its heroic status in the locals’ geographical imaginary for its flood prevention utility, the levee also provides a key public space and environmental resource in a community with limited outdoor recreational opportunities. As the most scenic and easily accessible place to interact with the riparian ecosystem, the levee has transcended traditional conceptions of infrastructure and become integrated within the Yellowstone’s “natural” riverscape. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a new set of floodplain maps in 2010, the community fumed at additional flood insurance costs. Although the economic burden became the primary concern, FEMA’s decision to ignore the existing levee proved especially hard to swallow. Despite the legitimate engineering concerns, erasing a central fixture of the community’s identity delegitimized FEMA’s work. Furthermore, a recently proposed $45 million replacement levee threatens to permanently alter the public access and community’s relationship to the dike. Using empirical data from semi-structured interviews with residents, we explore the social implications of replacing established infrastructure. Ultimately, we argue that the economic realities driving the Miles City floodplain resolution may overshadow other worthwhile considerations such as community identity and access to public space.

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