Monday, February 22, 2016

Sponsored post: Whither goest the Mississippi

After the great Mississippi River flood of 1927 congress told the US Army Corps of Engineers to make sure it didn’t happen again. The Corps has been trying for almost 90 years. The result? More flood for less rain.

This pithy assessment of the Corps work is from John McPhee’s acclaimed “Atchafalaya” written 27 years ago. It’s still true today because the Corps is still trying to fix the flooding problem by holding the rain instead of speeding its flow to the Gulf. (Mississippi is a holding pond.) Wrong strategy: Contain the River. How: build levees. Result: even more flood for less rain.

So why not adopt a Speed the Flow to the Gulf strategy? This logical question was asked back in 1927. But the Contain the River advocates prevailed. The Corps is a massive bureaucracy running a massive government program that’s not working. But hey, what’s new. Can a Speed the Flow strategy work? Yes. Mother Nature has already done most of the work. But there’s powerful opposition to change.

On December 29 the Baton Rouge Advocate reported that officials were conferring about opening Mississippi River spillways to minimize flooding in Louisiana. On the same day the Vicksburg Post reported that severe flooding would cause Mississippi’s deer season along the river to close almost a month early. Was flooding worse in Mississippi and did the season close early because the spillways weren’t already open to speed the flow? It looks like it.

More flood. Mississippi has had seven major floods in the last nine years. The 2011 flood crest was the highest ever recorded at Natchez and Vicksburg. Flooding is getting worse. It may be due more to the Corps’ containment strategy than Mother Nature.

The 2016 flood was the worst January flood ever recorded in Mississippi. Some areas are still flooded. Total Deer Swimming Lake Maryproperty damage won’t be known for months. But the short deer season has spot lighted short term decisions and a strategy that hurts Mississippi farmers and property owners.

The Mississippi Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks closed the season to protect deer fleeing Mississippi River flooding like those in the photograph. They were swimming to high ground about three miles away. Some probably didn’t make it. The stressed survivors in strange habitat were easy prey and needed protection. The commission made a good decision.

The Louisiana and federal officials conferring in December made a good decision too for Baton Rouge and New Orleans. But not for Mississippi.

The River. When it rains in the Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi river basins, the water flows downhill. It ends up in the Mississippi River north of Memphis. It meanders south by Tunica, Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico. The flat terrain there causes the flow to slow and sediment to fall. The sediments raise the river bed, extend the channel, and slows the flow despite continuous dredging. It takes longer for the water to discharge. Water levels and levees rise. The river gets longer and higher. This causes more floods which deposit more sediments which require more dredging and higher levees. And so on. It’s a constant battle with Mother Nature.

Every thousand years or so when the river silts in, it takes a shorter and steeper course to the Gulf. It’s about time. In the 1973 flood the river almost took a shortcut down an old river bed to the Atchafalaya River and then to the Gulf west of Morgan City, Louisiana. It’s about 150 miles shorter and steeper and faster than going by New Orleans. It’s already there to speed water to the Gulf.

Gravity will ultimately prevail. Meantime, the Corps tries to delay the inevitable and maintain the existing channel to sustain the city and port of New Orleans and the Baton Rouge-New Orleans petrochemical complex. What if the Corps finessed the inevitable? How? Speed the floods to the Gulf via the shortcut. Contain the flow during low water to maintain the existing channel.

The Corps. What does the Corps do now? It dredges, but not enough to speed the flow to the Gulf via the existing channel. It builds more and higher levees to contain the flow. And it builds control structures to relieve the greater floods due to its higher levees. But it rarely opens them and then only to relieve flooding downriver.

There are three control structures between Natchez and New Orleans. The Corps operates them to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans, not to speed the flow to the Gulf or relieve Natchez, Vicksburg, and points upriver.

The Old River Control Complex is just south of Natchez. It sits at the juncture of the main channel of the Mississippi and an old river bed connecting to the Atchafalaya River. It blocks the old river bed so that all the flow won’t take the shortcut. It keeps 70% of the flow in the main channel and speeds 30% down the shortcut to the Gulf.

The 70-30 split was set in 1954. That was nature’s split at that time. The Corps has changed the river in the 62 years since then, but not the split. Levees and water levels are higher. Flooding is worse at Natchez and Vicksburg. Speeding more flow down the Atchafalaya would relieve this. Why not do it? It takes an Act of Congress. Literally.

The river doesn’t need an Act of Congress. It follows the laws of nature (i.e., water runs down hill: the higher the hill, the faster it flows and the greater its force). Mother Nature will change the split and speed the flow to the Gulf if congress doesn’t. She may do more for Mississippi than its senators and congressmen.

If the split were 50-50, the main channel would be lower. Flooding upriver would be less severe. And the main channel would be less likely to take the shortcut. It would be even less likely if it were 40-60. And there would be even less flooding upriver.

The Morganza spillway is just downriver from old river. It can send about one fourth of the Mississippi’s flow there down its designated floodway to the Gulf near Morgan City. This speeds the flow to the Gulf and causes the main channel to rise slower, crest lower, and fall faster. This has a bigger impact on Baton Rouge and New Orleans immediately downstream than on Natchez and Vicksburg further upriver. But it helps.

The designated floodway has farming and recreational activities that have increased since the Morganza was finished in 1954. The Corps owns land and flowage easements in the floodway, but has only flooded it twice in 62 years. Once in 1973 to keep the river from overwhelming the old river structure and changing course. Again in 2011 to relieve New Orleans and Baton Rouge when the floodway was already flooding.

It appears the Corps has never considered opening the Morganza to speed the water to the Gulf. Why? Opposition from farming and recreational interests in its floodway? Whatever, it means greater flooding of private land upriver not subject to flooding easements.

The third control structure is the Bonnet Carre’ Spillway just north of New Orleans. When it opens, part of the river flows into Lake Pontchartrain and thence to the Gulf. It has been opened many times to protect New Orleans. The faster discharge also shortens floods upriver.

River Roulette. Decisions about who to flood involve trade offs. The Morganza floodway or the land above Natchez? The floodway or Baton Rouge/New Orleans? The Corps waits to make the call. It looks like River Roulette. But it’s not. Natchez and points upriver always take the flood bullet.

Natchez, Vicksburg, and backwaters were already flooding in December when federal and Louisiana officials conferred about flooding in Louisiana. (There were no reports of federal and Mississippi officials meeting about flooding upriver.) There were more reports of more Corps’ meetings with Louisiana officials (including the outgoing and incoming governors) about opening the spillways. The Bonnet Carret’ was opened January 10. The crest at New Orleans did not exceed flood stage.

The Corps announced the imminent opening of the Morganza several times subject to final decision by the commander in Vicksburg. But it was never opened. Vicksburg crested seven feet above flood stage. Natchez, nine feet above. Both were above flood stage for almost a month – while the holding pond slowly drained. There was no flooding in the floodway from the Morganza.

How much higher was the flooding at Greenville, Vicksburg, and Natchez due to the decision not to open the Morganaza? How much longer? How much greater was the economic damage? Wildlife losses?

What’s fair? Was it fair to spare the designated floodway and increase private property flooding in Mississippi? While the decision was pending, at least one Louisiana state legislator expressed concern about constituents near Morgan City. Did Mississippi legislators know the decision was pending? Did any speak up for constituents near Vicksburg? Natchez? The Delta?

It looks like the Mississippi River from Natchez to Memphis and the land between its levees plus the Yazoo and Homochitto basins is now a giant bathtub keeping the designated floodway from flooding. Like it? Yes, if you are farming, hunting or fishing on the Corps floodway. Not so much, if you you have a flooded farm or camp on private land in Mississippi.

What to do? Why not change the strategy? Why not speed up the flow to the Gulf? When it starts to flood, why not send more flow down the old river bed to the Gulf before the bathtub fills up? Better yet, why not send more flow before the bathtub ever starts to fill and give some lagniappe to Natchez, Vicksburg and points upriver?

Who can get the Corps attention and make this happen? Hello, Mississippi senators, congressmen, governor, and legislators. Who can encourage them? Hello, hunters, farmers, and landowners and the businesses that depend on them.

  This post was written by Kelley Williams,  Chair Bigger Pie Forum,  February 17, 2016

 Bigger Pie Forum purchased distribution rights for its content on Jackson Jambalaya.


Anonymous said...

The Corps of Engineers is the biggest disaster of our government. The Corps, as well as MDOT, are made up of engineers who were too stupid to make the cut in private sector, but of course could get a job at the government. So now we are stuck with a bunch of below average engineers playing God with rivers.

Anonymous said...

When you pave over the watershed it doesn't take much rain to flood the place. Water will flow to the gulf at a certain pace. When it rains more than can flow downriver it will flood.
People will just have to learn better than building in a flood area and expecting some on else to save them and their property.

Anonymous said...

It's global warming. We need a carbon tax to let the Corps of Engineers help us more

Problem solved. :-)

Anonymous said...

Great post, and fairly accurate. But just like Kelly does nowdays, totally onesided.

How much 'private land' in Mississippi and Louisiana was actually flooded this year? Land inside the levee did, but nothing much outside. And the land inside the levee is designed to be flooded.

Yes, it stressed the wildlife, just like any of the other possibilities would do in different areas.

And to blame it on Mississippi Senators and Congressmen is just Kelly again wanting to bitch at those he doesn't like. While these folks can put pressure on the Administration (the Corps does work for the Administration, after all, not for the Congress) but the Senators and Congressmen from LA are arguing the exact opposite - leading to the proverbial Mexican standoff.

There is much more economic damage to the flooding of NOLA and BR than there is to the farmland of the Mississippi Delta. And like it or not, that is a significant factor in the calculations. With all the high water this year, the only property flooded in Vicksburg this year were a couple of houses that flood in any good rain. Nothing flooded in Natchez. In exchange for the rural areas that did flood along the river would Mr. Williams suggest that flooding NOLA or BR would be a smarter move?

Anonymous said...

LOL and the anonymous commenter at 12:58 doesn't see themselves as "one-sided" or wanting to bitch at those they don't like. LOL

Anonymous said...

Read RISING TIDE. Great 101 introduction into the science, the politic and the science of politic of what the great river plays with......
We can ALWAYS make it better, but anything like the great river that man thinks that somehow they will one day be able to change and control completely???
Mother Nature will surely come in when she chooses and prove mankind's calculations as laughable.

Anonymous said...

I understand the premise to be annual flooding is normal and routine but catastrauphic flooding has become the new normal as a result of activity/engineering by the Corps on behalf of one constituency at the expense of another. The fact that apparently there has been no policy change in regards to flow rates at ORCC since the original 1954 rate was set shouldn't surprise anyone. This is how government works. The suggestions in the piece seem to be logical and straightforward as the control structures already exist to help alleviate the problems identified. Clearly the idea has no adverse impact on flooding in Baton Rouge or New Orleans; in fact, it appears to be just the opposite. This seems like good old fashion politics to me... where Mississippi, Ark, and north Lousiana get thrown under the buss as usual.

Anonymous said...

New Orleans, with the exception of the French Quarter, was built in a swamp. They're idiots for moving to an area that is below sea level. Flood the cesspool. There's no reason for people up stream to suffer as a result of poor planning by the coonasses.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Mississippi has been thrown under the bus? How many billions have been poured into the Delta? Latest one: Corps Cash To Benefit Region by Robert Davidson · February 17, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, today said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will provide an additional $67.1 million in FY2016 funding for flood control, navigation and other water resources-related work on waterways throughout Mississippi

City gets money for depot repairs

Published 10:49 am Friday, February 19, 2016

The city of Vicksburg has received an additional $120,000 in federal funds to perform additional work at the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Depot on Levee Street.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen Monday approved a resolution accepting the additional money, which increases the $417,475 in federal Transportation Alternative Program grant funds it received in 2014 to $537,475.

Yeah. It's always the big ole bad ole Corps? Except for the farmers and residents who live there and understand hydrology, El Nino, and the flood cycle.

"Flood worries eased by new crest forecast, but praise still to our government officials"
Published 9:37 am Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Anonymous said...

10:00 is spot on. Government employed engineers are merely engineers that couldn't make the cut in the private sector. Their work shows it.

Anonymous said...

I think what the earlier post was suggesting is that private landowners, business interest, sportsmen, etc. are being taken advantage of due to current flood policy.

What is fair and equitable on one side of the river should be the same on the other side. However, if there is a floodway easement which undoubtedly has been bought and paid for by our tax dollars but is not being used so that private property not subject to same can be used instead... Well, that is his point I think.

Anonymous said...

Not surprisingly, this self-congratulatory article mentions nothing about the affect of additional river water on the health of the Gulf and the people who fish it for a living. Opening the spillways decimates the oyster industry and disrupts breeding and hatchery cycles for any number of fish, the effects of which are felt up the food chain, in the pocketbooks of those who fish for a living, and the in pocketbooks of those who cater to recreational anglers.

Anonymous said...

The article must be on to something as you are making the case for economic engineering in your post. In order to protect the businesses and wildlife resources downstream then there will be damage suffered by those same things upstream. You can't have it both ways. Just call it like it is, there is stronger political advocacy for one group of folks than another.

The fix is in and has been for awhile when it comes to river flooding and who gets to suffer. Problem in Mississippi is nobody has been paying attention.

Looks like that is getting ready to change.

Anonymous said...

8:44. The oysters that would be effected are in an area where, if man hadn't interfered, oysters would be unable to grow.

Anonymous said...

We can build dams to control flooding. We can build walls to control flooding. What we can't do is stop people from building in an area that floods every time it rains.

Anonymous said...

Several of the comments are clearly missing the man's point in the article. Of course the Mississippi River floods. Always has and always will. He is pointing out that floods are becoming more frequent, more severe, and longer lasting due largely to Corps activities rather than to Mother Nature.

So he suggests what appears to be obvious to anybody that thinks logically. Revise the way the Corps manages the flow thru existing control structures so more river water is discharged instead of retained.

Guess that idea is too simple to be considered.

Anonymous said...

12:02. So what do you say to people with investments that were made 20, 30, 40 years ago that now are routinely affected by flooding?

We are not talking about building in a flood plain today. We are talking about the flood plain changing its stripes in the last decade or so with the help of the Corps of Engineers.

Explain to the camp owner who has 5 feet of water in his camp in January how he needs to just move to high ground while apparently his neighbor down river on the other side is dry.

Anonymous said...

3:00 Come on, you are smarter than that. It doesn't matter which side of the river you are on. It matters what the elevation is where you build your camp. There isn't a sudden drop off to the water level.

Anonymous said...

4:33. Due respect, as I understand the article it absolutely matters where one is located relative to effect of current flood control policies. All things being equal, quite obviously elevation is important in the analogy.
The important point however is how are different economic interests and people treated? Is it fair and equitable or have the results of channelization and so forth protected one group at the expense of another?

Anonymous said...

I suspect 3:00 is talking about the guy who is flooded out vs the guy who is getting the benefit of the control structure & unused flood easement areas. If so, he is right about that.

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