Life on the Mississippi

Louisiana flooding, 2016

Recent rains across the Midwest and the South had severe impact in the Missouri River basin and now are putting stress on the Mississippi River’s levee system. Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana and Mississippi have all recently seen levees in danger, with some local levees breached. There have also been forced evacuations, disaster area designations, significant property loss and unfortunately loss of life.

Federal funds flow to those impacted by these disasters during recovery operations and after, but much of those reactive expenditures could have been prevented through more, and much less expensive, funding of flood mitigation efforts ahead of disasters.

With concerns about potentially over-built levees, a reporter at a major newspaper recently reached out to ask me about the Mississippi River levee system, questioning if overbuilt levees in the Upper Mississippi may have contributed to this year’s floods.

There are some levee heights that have been challenged, but it is doubtful that any of recent flooding was a result of those levees. The major causes are obviously more rain and continued development that does not allow the ground to hold back the rainwater from flowing immediately into the river systems. Much of this year’s floods in the lower Mississippi basin resulted from massive rainfall in the Missouri River basin, upper Mississippi basin and additional rains in the lower Mississippi basin.  Waters from the Ohio River contributed as well.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers managed the extreme high waters in the Missouri system as well as possible given the competing requirements it must balance and the ever-changing long-term forecasts of rain.  Moreover, the Corps greatly limited the impact of high water in the lower Mississippi by its skillful management of the region’s system of river control structures.  But the costs of the flooding far exceed the costs of efforts that can be taken to mitigate flood risk prior to the arrival of the rains.

One sad story is in the Yazoo River basin just north of Vicksburg.  That area has been flooded for nearly four months. It’s unnecessary. The Yazoo Backwater project has been authorized and partially funded to pump extreme high water out of the basin, leaving forested wetlands untouched and with minimal impact on the Mississippi River.  Although it is controversial, and EPA vetoed it several years ago, EPA is presently reviewing that decision.  Is this modest investment worth it to reduce future flooding?

Maj. Gen. (ret) Don Riley
Senior Advisor

A former Deputy Commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, Don joined our firm in 2010.

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