The Mississippi, No Longer Muddy, Still a Threat

By Steven Solomon, Op Ed, Bloomberg News
10 June 2011

Reporter Peter Heller narrates a slideshow of photographs that chronicle flooding and flood-control efforts along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers in Louisiana. In May, Mississippi water levels rose to unprecedented heights. The Army Corps of Engineers released water from the lower part of the river through a series of flood gates called the Morganza Control Structure to prevent the inundation of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The torrent raised water levels in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River basin by more than 20 feet. (Photos by Franco Pagetti for Bloomberg Businessweek and by Getty Images. Source: Bloomberg)

As the floodwaters slowly recede along the lower Mississippi River, we can begin to take stock of the flood of 2011, the most devastating since the epic deluge of 1927.

Most striking, by far, is what didn’t happen: Although many people and communities suffered, overall economic and social life in and around the most important arterial waterway in the U.S. suffered only minimal injury. The national economy dodged a bullet at a vulnerable moment.

What went right? First and foremost, the emergency flood strategy devised by the Army Corps of Engineers after the 1927 disaster proved out. Think of it like this: The Mississippi Valley just south of St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico is essentially a 600-mile funnel that drains two- fifths of the continental U.S. from the Rockies to the Appalachians and serves as the commercial lifeline for the heartland’s 12,000-mile inland waterway transportation network.

Until 1927, the Corps tried to forcibly contain floodtides within a narrow corridor of high, strong levees. But in 1927 the mighty Mississippi burst its levees, inundating an area nearly the size of New England; displacing 600,000 people; drowning farmland; disrupting barge transport of grains, fuel and industrial goods; and tearing the economic and social fabric of the nation.

In response, the Corps built safety valves to divert excess water through floodways — essentially temporary rivers parallel to the Mississippi — to protect big cities and industries downstream. It took seven decades, but the flood of 2011 was the big test, and the plan passed with flying colors.

New Crises Brewing

Still, having dodged disaster this time does not protect us from new crises brewing on the river. The Mississippi itself is changing, thanks to altered precipitation patterns in the Midwest, ongoing natural and man-made changes within the river, development on its floodplains and other factors.

In its natural state, the Mississippi has been rightly described as a powerful, writhing snake always cutting new channels and requiring continuously adaptive solutions from engineers. But, given accelerated runoff from farms and cities and an increase in unusual storms, the engineering challenges have grown even more formidable.

Taken in succession with the shocks of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the appearance of a huge oxygen-deprived dead zone in the Gulf, and the increased frequency of so-called 100-year storms in the region, the great flood of 2011 should be the final warning that we must re-engineer the entire Mississippi watershed for unfolding realities of the 21st century.

Consensus on Fixes

The good news is that there is a remarkable consensus among the Army Corps, environmental groups and other experts on what needs to be done. Broadly, ecosystem sustainability needs to be given the same top priority alongside flood control and navigation, and the river’s managers need more tools as they adapt their responses to new challenges.

This starts with giving the river more room — by setting back (and modernizing) levees and by restoring wetlands at key locations throughout the floodplain. Wetlands are nature’s sponges: They absorb and naturally cleanse excess water, then gradually release it as things dry out. Around the world, wetlands are increasingly being restored and replacing concrete channels to increase storage, slow surges of destructive runoff, filter out pollutants, add green spaces for recreation and nurture wildlife and biodiversity.

Need More Wetlands

Wetland buffers are rightly a central component of the post-Katrina program under way to protect Louisiana’s battered coast from rising sea levels and hurricane storm surges. Groups such as the Nature Conservancy are collaborating with the Department of Agriculture and the Corps to find strategic parcels along the river that can be restored to wetlands.

We must also restore the amount of sediment flowing in the no-longer-so-muddy Mississippi. Huge volumes of sediment originating in the Rocky Mountains that used to replenish the Mississippi Delta are now trapped behind six great dams that were built on the Missouri River in the mid-20th century.

Giant Dead Zone

One can see the effect in the steady erosion of low- lying Louisiana coastline — so far about 2,300 square miles have been lost — and the increased vulnerability of the region to hurricanes and floods. The problem has been exacerbated by the dredging of canals by oil producers.

It is also vital that we curb the excess fertilizer that ends up in the river from farms using popular fast- drainage tile systems. These nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, end up in the Gulf, where they have led to algae blooms that have created a dead zone the size of Massachusetts between Louisiana and Texas. Decomposing algae consume oxygen, devastating fisheries and coastal ecosystems.

Most important, the Mississippi must be managed as an integrated, total watershed, from its tributary headwaters down to the Gulf, with consistent, minimum standards and coordinated participation among all stakeholders — state and local governments, shipping companies, farmers, the Army Corps, environmental groups, the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and so on. To some extent this is already occurring through the federal and state rebuilding projects in the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

A 1994 Blueprint

It’s an ambitious plan. Fortunately, there’s a good place to start: a highly praised 1994 report, “Sharing the Challenge: Floodplain Management Into the 21st Century,” produced by a White House task force headed by one of the Army’s top engineers, Brig. Gen. Gerald E. Galloway. The team investigated the destructive 1993 flood in the upper Mississippi basin and laid out a blueprint, in 60 specific proposed actions and recommendations on 28 other issues, for an economically robust and environmentally sustainable floodplain management system for the 21st century.

A New Law

Legislation based on the Galloway plan would give states financial incentives to develop better floodplain management plans to federal standards; environmental quality would be upgraded to equal status with economic development on federal water resource projects, which would be reviewed by a new, interagency group; the Mississippi River Commission, which was established by Congress in 1879 to oversee the southern portion of the river, would be expanded to include the upper Mississippi and Missouri basins; a lead federal agency would be designated to coordinate acquisition of key floodplain parcels, while residents voluntarily remaining in floodplains without federal flood insurance would be left accountable for their fates.

Yet there has been no law passed, and few of the recommendations in the Galloway report have been put into place. Blame the usual suspects: a Congress hostage to special interests and more interested financing pork projects such as dredging the Missouri River for its nonexistent barge traffic; state and local governments under the influence of developers; underfunding of the Corps; and hostility from the George W. Bush administration followed by a lack of interest from the Obama White House.

Safety and Jobs

The flood of 2011 should be a wakeup call. One hopes that President Barack Obama, who in the Senate represented Illinois, a state bordering the Mississippi, will recognize the Corps’ success in managing the crisis and provide the money and authority to make the Galloway plan a reality. (Incidentally, he would create no small number of jobs in the process.)

One only need look upriver on the Missouri, where outcries are rising and levees being breached thanks to record-shattering snowmelt in the Rockies, to understand that nature isn’t going to wait around for politics-as- usual to play out.

(Steven Solomon is the author of “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization” (HarperCollins 2010), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He is currently working on a book on the Mississippi River. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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