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More floodways, wider wetlands, stronger levees

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 17, 2011 - A year after the 1882 flood devastated the lower Mississippi — overwhelming the fledgling Mississippi River Commission's efforts — a former steamboat pilot grumbled that "ten thousand river commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream."

That sharp-tongued Missourian, Mark Twain (a pen name from the phrase riverboat crews yelled out when channels were navigable at two fathoms deep), remained skeptical that the river commission would ever have much success in keeping the lower Mississippi in bounds and navigable during major floods.

Nearly 130 years later, in the wake of this spring's record flooding, there are still critics of that same commission, the Army Corps of Engineers and the $14 billion Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T) flood-control system — a landmark engineering response to the Great Flood of 1927, improved in stages over the decades.

The MR&T is billed as the world's largest flood control system — extending from southeast Missouri to the tip of Louisiana — and river management experts from as far away as China traveled to the Mississippi valley this spring to witness its response to the record-setting floodwaters and to assess how the system might be duplicated elsewhere.

The Corps contends that the MR&T system worked as designed and prevented at least $62 billion in damages. But some groups — ranging from environmentalists to engineers and farmers — want to leverage the Flood of 2011 to change the system, floating ideas that include: taking down some levees, opening more floodways; eliminating a major floodway; and even creating a giant "wetlands national park" at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

For many environmental and wildlife groups, the clear message sent by the flood is: Loosen the river's levee "straightjacket" (which pushes up crest levels) and poke more holes in those dikes to make way for floodways or permanent wetlands to divert water out of the system and lower flood levels.

For farmers and landowners, the message is: Repair and strengthen the levees as quickly as possible, then find ways to control future floods, if possible without using MR&T system floodways, such as the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway in southeast Missouri, where 130,000 acres were intentionally flooded to divert water away from Cairo, Ill.

And for the Corps itself, the Flood of 2011 — which threatened at one point to reach the level of the Project Design Flood, the maximum sustained force that the levees and floodways of the MR&T project were designed to handle — has provided a valuable stress-test whose data can help tweak and improve what is otherwise considered to be a mostly successful system.

"The system as a whole has performed to expected levels of design," said Scott D. Whitney, a Corps biologist and manager heading an Interagency Recovery Task Force that is examining the lessons learned from this flood. "But it's like running your car engine at a very high rpm for an extended period of time; it's getting to the point that there are areas of concern. And we've seen some of those."

One major concern is the Birds Point floodway, which is also a prime focus of environmentalists and farmers. On Thursday, the Corps announced that it had started temporary repairs on the three blasted sections of the frontline levee, which is expected to take about three months. But a permanent fix is likely to await studies by the task force.

The task force, with representatives from seven states (including Missouri and Illinois) and 10 federal agencies, is likely to examine various longer-term options for the Birds Point and assess the impact of the giant Morganza floodway in Louisiana. And Whitney says the group, which will include a representative from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is open to discussing "non-traditional as well as traditional alternatives" to help lower the risks of living and working near rivers.

With this spring's record-setting flood, "the river has sent us a very important message," Whitney said. "We need to carefully evaluate what the river has told us."

But the messages of the Flood of 2011 are being interpreted in markedly different ways by environmentalists, farmers, academics and engineers.

Environmental groups want more floodways, wetlands

"If you will throw a long pliant apple peeling over your shoulder, it will pretty fairly shape itself into an average section of the Mississippi River; that is, the nine or ten hundred miles stretching from Cairo, Illinois, southward to New Orleans."

This 1944 map by Harold Fisk shows the changing courses of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The current course is indicated in white, while the colored strands represent the river's past paths. Read more about this map.
Harold Fisk, 1944 | Army Corps of Engineers
This 1944 map by Harold Fisk shows the changing courses of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The current course is indicated in white, while the colored strands represent the river's past paths. Read more about this map.

Twain's description in "Life on the Mississippi" was based on his impressions as a young riverboat pilot before the Civil War. Over the centuries, the river's length varied widely from year to year as it snaked around its expansive floodplain or dug natural shortcuts between hairpin bends.

But since the Corps began a program of artificial "cutoffs" in 1929 to foster river navigation, the lower Mississippi's length has been shortened by about 145 miles, or 12 percent of its total. That process, along with the levees, transformed what had been a widely meandering alluvial river into a highly "trained" and confined channel, much deeper in many places.

The Corps and some outside experts say that transformation has lowered flood levels and controlled the river; many environmentalists argue that the opposite is true because the river is squeezed into a relatively narrow channel, which in turn pushes up flood levels.

"It would a mistake to draw the lesson that — just because there wasn't catastrophic flooding this year — that the [MR&T] system should not be changed," said Andrew Fahlund, vice president for conservation of American Rivers, an environmental group that supports better flood-plain management. "We need to look for more ways that would give the river more room to move."

Fahlund told the Beacon that the record crests during this year's flood "illustrate how levees exacerbate the problem" of river crests getting higher. To divert floodwaters, he said, it is "important that we have more floodways and use them more frequently."

For that reason, Fahlund supported the use of the Birds Point-New Madrid and Morganza floodways (in Louisiana) during this spring's deluge. He contends that "our society has to make some hard choices. Do we make investments in structural solutions like levees or do we open up the wetlands?"

Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the St. Louis-based Missouri Coalition for the Environment, accuses the Corps of tweaking the flood-level numbers in ways that justifies rebuilding breached levees — rather than creating wetlands or floodways.

"There isn't enough concrete in the world to contain the Mississippi," she said. "If we had a more perforated flood plain, it would help" lower flood levels, "and working with the system is going to be a lot more productive than trying to build higher levees."

Among the academic experts who question the Corps' river statistics and agree with the need for more wetlands is Robert Criss, a professor in Washington University's earth sciences department, and author of the book, "At the Confluence: Rivers, Floods and Water Quality in the St. Louis Region." He thinks Congress, rather than relying on the Corps for an assessment ("It's like asking a kid to fill out his own report card"), should ask independent experts to examine this year's flood.  (Criss and Logan Smith authored a commentary for the Beacon on the flood.)

"The Corps has been assessing its own accomplishments for years, and it has ignored — if not totally disparaged — any outside input, whether it is from academics or environmental groups," Criss says. Some of his research has focused on data indicating that "the Corps tends to underestimate the likelihood of future flooding," which has had direct impact on flood plain development.

In one study, Criss scrutinized the history of Mississippi floods at Mark Twain's home town. "At Hannibal, 1993 was a 500-year flood, 2008 was a 200-year flood. In the last 20 years, Hannibal has also had a 70-year flood and six more floods in the 10- to 100-year range," he said. "It's like every other year you have a 10-year flood ... That's how wrong their flood statistics are."

Such calculations have consequences. "The first thing we need to do [to reduce flood damages] is get stuff out of floodable areas," he said. "But because [the Corps] understates the probability of flooding, that enables people to move into these low areas, get financing and insurance. Until we get the flood statistics right, we're going to be making the problem worse every year."

Ramifications of the Birds Point blast

Perhaps the most controversial decision in the Corps' handling of this spring's flood was the May 3 blasting of the Birds Point levee. Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, the Corps official who is the commission's president, contends that it was a necessary and successful activation of a designated floodway.

But six weeks later, experts disagreed about whether the action was necessary, exactly how successful it was in lowering river levels, and whether the Corps should be evaluating that action without input from independent experts.

"Of course they are going to thump their chest and boast that they saved Cairo," Criss said. "But other people have a different opinion about that." While he doubts that "we'll ever know for sure whether or not it saved Cairo," Criss said the readings he saw indicated that "there was not a danger of the flood wall being overtopped."

Taking a different view is river expert Nicholas Pinter, a geomorphology professor in the geology and environmental resources program at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. If anything, he said, the Corps "should have activated [Birds Point] sooner."

"The flood was certainly threatening Cairo; by waiting so long, they were rolling the dice," said Pinter. He told the Beacon that the decision to use the Missouri floodway worked as planned. "The reduction in flood levels was immediate and significant," he said. "And it's not how much the river goes down; it's how much lower it was than the peak would have been without operating it."

While some have questioned the impact of the activated floodway on river levels, Pinter said, "the benefits were realized upstream for many miles on the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers, and then downstream all the way parallel to where the floodway water comes out again at New Madrid."

But U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, who represents residents and landowners in the floodway, feels otherwise. "I would beg to differ with some who think it was necessary to breach the Birds Point levee," she told the Beacon, arguing that Cairo's flood wall "had almost a couple feet of freeboard" and likely would not have been overtopped.

"The water came into the floodway and the river didn't go down for very long," Emerson argued. "It's the same thing that happened in 1937. I'm not an engineer, but just looking at the lay of the land, I'm not really sure that it did what [the Corps] wanted it to do."

In calling the performance of the MR&T system this spring "a qualified success," Pinter said one of the biggest qualifications he would point out was "the intense local resistance to activate and operate Birds Point-New Madrid." He said Missouri's political pressure to block the use of Birds Point set a bad precedent for what should have been a decision based on river engineering.

"When you look at the history of the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway, it is all about political pressure and press attention," Pinter said. "The local residents have fought tooth and nail every time — from the initial design and construction of the floodway to every major flood, in '37, '73 and in the '80s and '93 and this year. I think we should rectify those political problems first and worry about the engineering later."

Sluice gates or a wetlands park?

One engineering option — which would face sharp political opposition in Missouri — would be building sluice gates at Birds Point to allow the Corps to open the floodway partially when needed, causing less damage. Fahlund said he likes the sluice-gate idea because "it's certainly better than having to blow up the levee." But Emerson said she "strenuously opposes" the idea "because it would make it easier for the Corps to use those gates more often."

While he acknowledged that he had heard the sluice-gate idea, Whitney said the Corps would have to get specific congressional authority to take such a step. "Our current charge is to reset and restore the system to its pre-flood condition — not putting gates in at Birds Point or elsewhere," he said.

But others say the flood-plain debate at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi should also consider sites in Illinois and Kentucky. Criss contends that Cairo — a declining city that has lost about four-fifths of its population since the MR&T system was designed in 1928, in part to protect it — should not be exempt from the arguments about the advantages of raising levees and flood walls versus opening flood plains.

"What we ought to be doing is moving people out of the flood plain," Criss said.

One of the most dramatic — but politically volatile — suggestions to emerge from the flood is to convert the entire, 130,000-acre Birds Point-New Madrid floodway into a giant wetlands national part, with Cairo perhaps becoming the park's headquarters.

Such a park "would serve as a gigantic flood buffer" for the entire region, said William J. Mitsch, an environmental and natural resources professor at Ohio State University. "They should take the [Birds Point] levees down and leave them down" he told the Beacon. "That area used to be one of the most beautiful bottomland forest and backwater swamp areas on the planet."

But Missouri lawmakers, farmers and floodway landowners contend that development has progressed too far to make it feasible to convert the area into a park. Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation, vows that the state's farmers would block any such plan and warns that "farmers and families who live along the Mississippi should prepare themselves for a decades-long battle" with environmentalists.

Repairs, tweaks may be needed in MR&T system

The emphasis on the Birds Point debate should not divert attention from the rest of the complex, often modified MR&T system, which extends all the way to the Gulf.

Its main-stem levee system includes 1,607 miles of levees along the Mississippi as well as another 596 miles along the south banks of the Arkansas and Red rivers and in the Atchafalaya River basin in Louisiana.

But levees are only one major element of the MR&T system, which also includes the Birds Point, Morganza and other floodways to divert "excess flows" past critical reaches of the Mississippi. When some groups criticize the levee system, Whitney says, they tend to ignore the giant floodway spigots that were built to divert floodwaters as needed.

The Bonnet Carre spillway in Louisiana has been used often and the Morganza Control Structure — a concrete overflow dam, or weir, completed in 1954 has two sluice gates and 125 gated openings. The spillway was partially opened this spring and in 1973 to allow floodwaters into the Morganza Floodway. That torrent damaged farms and other structures in the floodway and in towns affected by backwater flooding. But diverting massive volumes for floodwater away from the Mississippi, starting on May 14, probably prevented flooding in both Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Corps officials say.

"This was the first time in history that all of the floodways have been operated at the same time for the same event," said Whitney. If Morganza and Bonnet Carre had not been operated, he said, "both Baton Rouge and New Orleans would have been under water." Pinter agreed that opening the spillways "may well have saved New Orleans" in this spring's flood.

Environmentalists and the Corps tend to agree on the importance of diverting Mississippi water into floodways. Fahlund of American Rivers supported the Birds Point blast and called the decision to open Morganza "agonizing but correct." The issue, he said, is that there should be more floodways and wetlands — and fewer levees — to keep flood levels down and to prevent development in floodplains.

The arguments over floodways and levees on the Mississippi — the "levees versus outlets" debate — date back at least to the early 19th century, according to John M. Barry's book, "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America."

In a telephone interview and an email exchange, Barry — who in addition to writing books is also involved in the oversight of three levee districts in the New Orleans area — told the Beacon that he thought the MR&T system worked relatively well this spring, with some exceptions.

"In terms of the relatively narrow question of flood protection on the lower Mississippi, I think it is a very good plan," Barry said. But he said that the Corps did not do a very good job of communicating its intentions to operate the Birds Point and Morganza floodways in a timely fashion. "Failure to communicate about Morganza led to unnecessary concern that they would not open it, which would have put Baton Rouge and New Orleans at real risk."

As for Birds Point, Barry said "the farmers scream bloody murder, but the reality is — I can just picture the visuals of Cairo being destroyed by the river ... Ultimately, there's no real question about what was going to happen."

Pinter also said he regarded the MR&T system as a qualified success in this year's flood — with the main qualification being the delay in blasting the Birds Point levee. "It is a robust flood-control system, and it proved its effectiveness this year," he said.

But Pinter contends that the Corps' management of the middle Mississippi — from the confluence with the Missouri River above St. Louis to the confluence with the Ohio at Cairo — has been less effective than in the lower Mississippi.

"There are successes and failures in the engineering of American rivers," Pinter told the Beacon. "There have been an ongoing series of mistakes on the middle Mississippi river. Those mistakes — for the most part — have not been made on the lower Mississippi."

That is partly because of the different nature of the river south of Cairo and also because the entire MR&T system is federally controlled and coordinated. "It's a whole different story down there" in the lower Mississippi, Pinter said. Whereas the Flood of 1993 hit the St. Louis region so hard partly because of problematic navigational structures such as wing dikes, he said, "in the lower Mississippi, the net effect of navigation engineering — straightening the river, cutoffs of meanders — has actually made flood levels lower."

While the Corps and other agencies already have sent experts out to examine the Birds Point floodway and every other major facet of the MR&T system, Whitney cautions that his task force this year has fewer options because of the nature of the MR&T system. "It is a federally operated and maintained project. So the option of not fixing [a levee] is not really a topic for discussion," he said. "If Congress says, 'We don't want you to go back and rebuild what we've paid to put in place,' that would be different."

Whitney said "it's not our place to presume what a state or local or federal interest wants. We're there to learn, listen and share our experiences in that forum." He added that "the idea of more floodways has been discussed" and will at least be examined. "We need to carefully evaluate what the river has told us," he said. "In the end, the question is: What do we need to be attending to in the future?"

Twain, having learned to read the Mississippi as a young pilot, observed that the great river "told its mind to me without reserve... it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day."

The story of the Flood of 2011, however it is interpreted, is likely to go down as one of the great events on the lower Mississippi. Historians, engineers and environmentalists will be reading and interpreting its messages for decades to come.

Robert Koenig Beacon Washington correspondent

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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