Friday, April 29, 2016

Kelly Williams: More Flood for Less Rain

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 property 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 riverbed, extend the channel, and slow 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 riverbed connecting to the Atchafalaya River. It blocks the old riverbed 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 Carré 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 Carré 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 Morganza? 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 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 riverbed 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.

Relieved? On January 6 the Pushpole Blog satirically posted: "Berwick, LA a tiny pharming town located just across the Atchafalaya River from Morgan City stands to lose its entire meth crop if the Morganza Spillway is opened to relieve the cresting Mississippi River."

You may or may not be relieved to know it didn't.

Kelley Williams, Chair - Bigger Pie Forum

This sponsored post was written by Kelly Williams.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Kelley. This Mississippi River has a long and interesting history from the time people began messing with it (other than the native americans) up until now.
It would take some buying of private land (or taking) by the govt. but why not start a diversion channel south of Greenville. Send it into Lake Washington then down through the Delta to join up to the Pearl River around south Hinds County? Make it deep and wide enough for navigation. Put in some locks and make some reservoirs.
The Pearl empties into the Gulf so NOLA and Red Stick wouldn't be bothered.
It could provide water during times of drought for the Delta farmers, recreation areas (make a few man made tributaries with eddies - White Water Rafting in Yazoo City!) and just think - the MGM Grand Casino at Crystal Springs!
And add hydroelectric facilities too so we can stop burning coal. Hell, we could have free energy!
And jobs! Oh the jobs! We would have a nearly non-existent unemployment rate!
The Federal Government could pay for all this! And our Legislature wouldn't have to worry about bothering the LA folks.
Large government project + more jobs + free clean energy + Casinos = more gambling money from the in-state population being recycled back to the state, developers getting richer (Harkins will go buy some land in Bolton just from reading this), and the elected officials get more $$$ in their war chests! Hey, Pick, you can get your own plane and fly straight to Disney.
Hey Rudy! I bet they need an engineer!
We could use prisoners to help build it - you can get out quicker Epps. Oh wait, you still haven't been sentenced.
I know I missed some folks, but it would be nice to jump on the Carnival Spice and head to my favorite exotic port of call!

Jeff said...

1. Rivers don't know or care about "short and steep."

2. Did anyone ever consider that just maybe a contributing factor, or maybe THE reason that flooding has gotten worse is that there is more/faster runoff? In other words, more development upstream (clearing, leveling, building, paving) allows a lot more water to flow to and in the streams quicker. Once it's there, it's hard to deal with by playing Corps with the river.

Charlie Blood said...

Leave Lake Washington alone, idiot. It's the only oxbow that the river never gets into now.

Anonymous said...

Let the river do what it does naturally. We always screw things up. We are stupid to build in flood plains. Look what the development in Flowood and Jackson did to the Pearl River. You fill in hundreds of acres of flood plain and cause the river to back up into land not previously subject to flooding. Of course lets face facts, a certain prominent family owned most of that land so no one was going to stop this destruction of the flood plain.

Anonymous said...

John Berry's Rising Tide is a great book on the subject.

Anonymous said...

@8:40 or Eagle lake, or Bee lake , or Sky Lake, Or Wasp lake, or the plethora of other old oxbows scattered throughout the delta that used to be old river channels.

Some light needs to be shed on the Steel Bayou control structure off Eagle Lake Road. That is the plug in the bathtub so to speak for the interior and we need to get the backwater pumps installed in the event the gate at Steel Bayou are closed due to a high river and the interior delta is receiving large rainfall amounts. These pump will pump water over the levee at steel bayou and into the Yazoo and out to the river. This is what causes a large portion of flooding in the interior delta via the Sunflower rivers and deer creek and steel bayou and other tributaries.

Anonymous said...

You can move the water from one place to another place but as long as it rains there will be water falling. Water runs from the high places to the low places. If you fill in one low place the water will run to another low place.
It is really very simple. There will be water. It will flow to low places. Build on the high places. When you make high places out of low places, the water will flow to other low places. See how simple it is?

Anonymous said...

This article is interesting, but more analysis is needed. First, the article leaves the impression that the Corps has made no difference. On the contrary, there has not been another 1927 since the Corps took over. Second, the suggestion that Vicksburg and Natchez routinely flood is slightly misleading. Certain low-lying areas with minimal populations flood. That is a problem, but many of these areas likely flooded historically anyway. Third, a concern is expressed for the wildlife near Vicksburg and Natchez. It's sad that the game stock of wealthy hunting camps are detrimentally affected by flooding, but higher waters along the Atchafalaya and Morgan Rivers would affect the exact same species of wildlife. Fourth, the Corps was forced to invest more resources in Louisiana after national public opinion blamed the Corps for Katrina. Until national public opinion changes, the Corps has little choice but to bend to Lousiana's needs. All that to say, reform in river control is needed, and there needs to be more concern for farmers in Mississippi's lower Delta, but the suggestion that the Corps' entire strategy is flawed is a little excessive, to say the least.

Dan Hise said...

Mark Twain wrote a great book called "Life on the Mississippi," about his steamboat experiences. He addresses the idea that the river could be "engineered" by quoting Ecclesiastes: "That which God hath made crooked, no man can set straight."

Anonymous said...

Another Kelly Williams epistle ghost written by others. Interesting comments, but nothing new in his commentary. No matter what is done, somewhere is going to flood in times of heavy rain or heavy snow melt up north. Raise the levees; dredge deeper; open the gates; keep the gates closed. Hurt the oyster beds or protect the upriver wildlife.

Basically its simple. Folks who have built in the flood prone land shouldn't keep on getting bailed out by our tax dollars in the form of subsidized flood insurance. (Don't remember seeing Kelly bitching about this largess as he is prone to do on other issues)

Realize that the river affects folks from the top to the bottom on both sides - one side or one end shouldn't get the benefit just because of their political prowess (as LA did after the 1927 flood with their levees being built two feet higher than ours).

And understand engineering principles before you espouse solutions. Dredging deeper in and of itself doesn't make it empty faster.

Kingfish said...

Then there is the matter of bypassing New Orleans. Everyone must've forgot what effect a course change will have on the national economy.

Anonymous said...

The article Mr. Williams has written is an interesting 30,000 foot view of the issues currently facing many affected by decades of Corp's policy. The knee jerk "it rains and then it floods" or "water flows down river and floods low lying areas" is an expected and typical response from someone who doesn't read the piece carefully. The article points out how over time engineering policy has manipulated the flood outcome for one group at the expense of another. Also, points how how Mississippi's politicians have been AWOL on the flood control issues while apparently Lousiana's have been engaged. Sounds like a discussion worth having to me.

Anonymous said...

Hire a plumber to get the job done. At least they would know water flows down hill and would not spend so much time trying to tell people otherwise.

Anonymous said...

8:39 - the fact is that the Corps has for decades affected the areas involved. But the further fact is that the Corps has, over those decades, changed its policies from one concept to the opposite, and back again. Largely depending on the philosophy of the administration in office at the time. And to the politicians of the various states who have affected those policies. And to say that MS's politicians have been AWOL is about as intelligent as any ostrich with his head stuck in the sand, except yours must be stuck in another part of your anatomy.

The theory postulated here by Mr. Williams reflects one opinion and one side of the story. There are plenty of other stories written about this long-going debate. Read them all; put them together; and then try to figure out the solution - and the politics that has been involved.

Chocolate City Tour said...

"Louisiana's politicians have been involved in flood-control issues."

Oh Really? How other than by providing 4x8 sheets of plywood to the Ninth District?

Anonymous said...

10:56 - you may be on to something...

Anonymous said...

Most posting don't live, work, and play on the river. I know it floods, and I'm ok with the normal rise and fall of the MS River. But you're naïve or uneducated on the river if you haven't noticed we have had higher and more frequent flooding "behind the levee" and other backwater areas over the last 10 years than any time in history. So much that we have been close to loosing the levee on several occasions and in several spots. In case you're wondering, this would have affected more than just "wealthy hunting clubs" as some see it. I don't think many know how big of a bullet we dodged in 2011 even as bad as it was. If there had been any sizeable rainfall during the Spring 2011 flood it would have been devastating to many people. Thank goodness it was a drought.

Anonymous said...

I am involved in the timber management business primarily with clients with hardwood assets. Most of my business is in and along stretches of the lower Mississippi River. There is no question the change to the site index being experienced by most of the clients due primarily to larger sand deposition as a result of the changing flood character. The reality is lots of the hardwood timber I have had the pleasure of managing for the last 30 years is being destroyed by changing site conditions and replaced by less desirable species. Anybody who thinks there is not an economic effect at a minimum due to the changing flood conditions being felt is simply not engaged or not informed.

Anonymous said...

8:39 - I couldn't have said it better myself when you say "...and to the politicians of the various states who have affected those policies." However, I guess you know (or obviously you don't) you are making the man's point! Anyway, I don't have a vested interest one way or the other, but having covered many of the floods over the years I can say this: Louisiana's politicians wether on a local level or state level are involved with decisions to open various flood control structures. Not sure I have ever heard of Mississippi's politicians being involved I these same discussion and decisions.

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