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article imageOp-Ed: Mississippi River — Sandbagging our way to flood control

By Lynn Herrmann     May 23, 2011 in Environment
Natchez - Mississippi River floodwaters continue moving south, leaving in their wake thousands of flooded homes and businesses and millions of acres of flooded land, an event Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, in his comfort zone, urged citizens to be wary of.
Levee conditions along lower parts of the mighty river are now cause of concern, with floodwaters and heavy rains causing them to become increasingly saturated. “These levees are going to be more and more saturated every day. There will be continuing wave action up against them and so people shouldn't drop their guard” Barbour said on Friday, CNN reports.
Adding to the floodwater dangers are health risks associated with the contaminated floodwaters. “We've had reports of water samples where the E. coli level was 200 times normal. This stuff is nasty,” Barbour added. Unaddressed is the issue of climate change.
Earlier this month the governor said the flood could be “monumental” and might exceed levels of the historic 1927 flood.
According to the National Weather Service, (NWS) the current flood stage at Natchez is 61.3 feet, surpassing the previous record of 58.04 feet set in 1937. The river at Natchez is in a “slow fall,” according to NWS.
In Louisiana, officials opened the Morganza floodway on May 14 in an attempt to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans from massive flooding, diverting waters into the Atchafalaya Basin to flood 1.3 million acres along with communities like Butte Larose. The spillway had not been previously opened since 1973.
The Morganza action comes after earlier upstream attempts to control surging floodwaters. For a government which loves blowing things up, it only makes sense that levees once built for flood control would be blown up allowing flooding of previously sacred ground. Only in America would such an act seem so logical that nary a word has been spoken since the trigger was pulled. Regardless, it must be added to the carton full of questions.
Morganza Spillway  opened in May 2011  its first opening since 1973.
Morganza Spillway, opened in May 2011, its first opening since 1973.
lagohsep/flickr
Many farmers along the Mississippi River were readying themselves for wheat harvests just before the flood arrived. Those crops are ruined, and with the associated dry-out time needed after waters recede, farmers will not return to their fields for weeks. The disruption could not come at a worse time.
The US, the world’s largest wheat exporter, now joins Russia and Australia, other leading wheat producers, in coping with extreme weather events in recent years which will force global food prices to continue their upward surge.
With wheat prices reaching a three-month high this past week, and with results of an exceptional drought in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas still not factored into the equation, it’s a safe bet American pocketbooks will continue feeling the strain for months to come, despite election and re-election hopes in the coming year which will spew forth an agenda focused on the improving economy.
Since the Mississippi is experiencing its greatest flood in more than 80 years, hitting the US breadbasket with a yet-to-be-seen spike in those already surging food prices, Americans must begin facing a hard reality.
Global warming, climate change or changing weather patterns may be hot-button topics for some, but for all the reality is extreme weather events are causing, and will continue to cause, major disruptions for Americans, from the gas station to the supermarket.
As the absurdities of living in a known flood plain become increasingly apparent with each passing day, people are asking for tax money to assist in such absurdities. But the US government, already consumed with its two imaginary wars on drugs and terror, along with a record deficit, in addition to a more than $14 trillion debt ceiling, and with the country’s infrastructure crumbling, the question must be asked, where does the money come from?
With too little water in the west and too much in the midwest and deep south, the US finds itself in a situation of desperation unknown to most who will eventually be impacted the most.
Barge traffic on the Mississippi River.
Barge traffic on the Mississippi River.
rush_39402/flickr
For years scientists have told us of extreme weather events linked to global warming. This year’s events all along the Mississippi River show us once again how dependent we are on the natural world, yet once the floodwaters subside, few will take heed.
The Mississippi River has repeatedly shown us the futility of developing flood plains of rivers and streams. Ever so slowly, a voice across the country is growing, calling for a reassessment of such developmental behavior. “We’ve basically built up to the edge and farmed up to the edge of our rivers and streams, giving them very little room to move,” Andrew Fahlund, American Rivers’ Senior Vice President for Conservation recently told CNN.
“We’ve paved over and farmed over millions of acres of wetlands which are natural sponges, so we really need to restore and protect some of those natural defenses in addition to making investments in levees,” Fahlund added.
“We really don’t have much of a choice here. We’re going to have to find land to store some of these waters during these big, catastrophic events,” Fahlund said.
California s Napa River-Napa Creek Project.
California's Napa River-Napa Creek Project.
USACEpublicaffairs/fickr
In Napa, California, far-removed from the heartland’s current disaster, the Napa River-Napa Creek Flood Project is underway to address the city’s own flood-prone area. The undertaking involves structure removals from flood plains, installing bypass culverts, removing or replacing bridges, terracing of riverbanks, and converting previously human-occupied properties into green spaces.
Napa’s Veterans Memorial Park now serves as a bowl for overflowing waters. A flood in 2005, before the project was completed, showed the effectiveness of such efforts. City Mayor Jill Techel said the town drained its floodwaters in 24 hours instead of the usual two to three days associated with previous floods. She called the new wetland “a sponge” and said “It took all that water,” according to the Washington Post.
Napa obtained part of its funding from the Corps of Engineers.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa is another city no stranger to river floods. So often-flooded it no longer references 100-year floods, instead naming its 2008 flood an 800-year flood, the city has been buying up homes and businesses in the flood plain of the Cedar River, which slices through the center of the city. But the project is now in jeopardy.
Earlier this month city voters rejected a sales tax increase to help pay for rebuilt, gently sloped levees. The Corps, long favoring steep levees and straight, deep channels forcing increased rates of floodwaters, also rejected part of the city plan.
Then there is the example of Chesterfield, Mo. The historic floods of 1993 included the Missouri River, and just because it could, the river breeched a levee built to withstand a hundred-year flood and presumably to protect the town. The event caused $400 million in damages.
To counter the river’s efforts, authorities rebuilt the levee and raised its wall by as much as seven feet. So it could withstand a 500-year flood. The problem with this concept is it’s a safe bet not too many folks in Chesterfield, back in 1993, were arguing over climate change linked with extreme weather events. Instead, the argument is now over 500, 800 and 1,000-year floods.
The journal Nature published a study earlier this year by a group of scientists noting “human-influenced global warming” may be a factor in increased heavy precipitation events. The authors stated

Here we show that human-induced increases in greenhouse gases have contributed to the observed intensification of heavy precipitation events found over approximately two-thirds of data-covered parts of Northern Hemisphere land areas.
The report adds projections in extreme precipitation changes may be underestimated, thus the impacts.
More than a decade ago, then-executive director Wayne Freeman of the Great Rivers Land Trust, said: “Basically what we’re seeing is continued use of the flood plain for inappropriate reasons,” the New York Times noted.
The marriage of flood plains and levee construction is being tested as the mighty Mississippi River continues moving its path of destruction downstream and by the journey's end, many will have already begun the rebuilding process. Much like the insurance agent who repeatedly builds his home in the flood zone, our government continues funding senseless role playing in the flood disasters, over and over.
Take the town of Chesterfield, Mo. for example. The 1993 floods included the Missouri River, and just because it could, the river breeched a levee built to withstand a hundred-year flood and presumably to protect the town. The event caused $400 million in damages.
To counter the river’s efforts, authorities rebuilt the levee and raised its wall by as much as seven feet. So it could withstand a 500-year flood. The problem with this concept is it’s a safe bet not too many folks in Chesterfield, back in 1993, were arguing over climate change linked with extreme weather events. Instead, the argument is now over 500, 800 and 1,000-year floods.
As some members of the human species continue attempts at altering natural flooding events, the toll on taxpayers takes a hit as levee construction, levee destruction, diminishing food supplies and extreme weather events begin taking center stage.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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