Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mississippi River Basin Flood Update; A Situation Ripe for Policy Reconsideration

Latest News
Flood waters continue to take center stage in the middle and lower Mississippi River valley this week in the aftermath of the Army Corps of Engineers May 2, planned levee breach near Birds Point, Missouri, and as the River crest moved downstream past Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi, and toward Louisiana.

The Army Corps' Birds Point operation allowed water to flow through the New Madrid Floodway and reduced the risks of flooding in upstream Cairo, Illinois.  Even as waters flowed over the land, farmers were concerned that the flooded Missouri lands would be "stripped of soil," leaving farms unsuitable for agriculture use for years to come, while scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey suggested that the planned nature of the breach and the extensive 11,000-foot-wide opening blown into the levee might have limited the erosional impact of diverted River waters as they flowed over an estimated 130,000 acres of flooded farmland.

In the meantime, the River crest moved south along the River, passing Memphis, Tennessee at a height slightly below that city's levee elevation; as preparations continued downstream, and concern along the Lower Mississippi River rose.  Not only were levels rising in the Mississippi River, but that River's waters were backing up into its tributaries, such as the Yazoo River in Mississippi, many of which are not lined with substantial levees, unlike the main stem Mississippi.  As the River crest flowed south, it threatened not only towns and cities and impacted River barge traffic, but also jeopardized crops already planted in Mississippi, and oil refining and pipeline infrastructure.

Estimates of farmland flooded in Lower Mississippi River Basin states of Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi were placed at three million acres, with one million acres under water in Arkansas, alone.

Farther downstream in Louisiana, the Army Corps opened up a spillway, allowing rising Mississippi waters to flow into the Atchafalaya River Basin; diverting some from flowing past New Orleans and its system of levees (here is a related map of Mississippi River flooding estimate for Louisiana). The Corps is also considering opening up a second (Morganza) Louisiana floodway "sometime between Friday and Tuesday" to further relieve pressure on the downstream flood control infrastructure designed to protect the New Orleans metropolitan area.

Policy Implications
The near-record flooding in the Mississippi Basin has prompted renewed calls for a change in the way water resources are managed in the region and elsewhere, and has particularly focused attention on the Basin's extensive levee system, its impacts on neighboring urban and rural communities and on the environment.  Some are recognizing the benefits of reoriented Dutch policy and their current massive nationwide project focused on the development of more natural defenses to replace constructed defenses.

Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project, recommended in a May 3 National Geographic "Daily News" article that what is called for is "a comprehensive plan to add ecological infrastructure to complement engineering infrastructure - specifically to expand wetlands and re-activate floodplains so as to mitigate future flood risks." The Nature Conservancy's Jeff Opperman places the 2011 flooding into an historical context in this comprehensive, late April blog, noting that the lessons from the historic 1927 Mississippi River flood event continue to hold true today, and the need exists to "continue to build resiliency into the system and let the floodplains do some of the work," along with the constructed infrastructure.  And the Water Protection Network suggested that the nation adopt "a growth policy that allows 'Room for Rivers' - retreating from their floodplains rather than continuing to develop upon them."  H.J. Bosworth Jr., civil engineer and director of research for echoed the Water Protection Network sentiments, noting in this ABC news piece that, "there was lots of rainfall, but there was also lots of development . . . add(ing) to the burden of the drainage system and all that drainage goes into the Mississippi River."

Finally, in this CNN video segment, CNN’s Christine Romans interviewed American Rivers' Senior Vice President for Conservation Andrew Fahlund "about the country’s reliance on levees, what needs to change and what the next steps should be to contain the Mississippi river."

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps it's time for a National Dialogue for the Future of the Mississippi River. One that engages citizens - expert and non-expert alike - to find new approaches to the River's (and our) future.