Déjà vu all over again

By KELLEY WILLIAMS,

On January 15, 2016, the Mississippi River at Vicksburg reached 50 feet — seven feet above flood stage. It was the highest January crest since 1879 when Congress put the Mississippi River Commission (MRC) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) in charge of flood control. A freak January flood. It caused the Mississippi deer season to close early along the river.

It happened again this year. On January 12-13, the river reached flood stage at Vicksburg and Greenville. And the deer season closed early. “Deja vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra said. The river has reached flood stage in January only three times in 140 years — but twice in the last three years.

Mississippi River floods used to be predictable, often moderate and beneficial spring time events. Now they happen any time. This current flood started last October when the river rose and stopped some farmers from combining soybeans. Floods are longer, higher, more frequent, more destructive, year-round events now. Why? Ironically, “flood control.”

Flooding is the worst in 500 years according to research by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute scientists published April 5, 2018 in the venerable Nature International Journal of Science. The research shows that 75 percent of the flooding is due to “flood control” and 25 percent to cyclical rainfall patterns. 

A prominent member of the Mississippi Levee Board said the January 2016 flood was due to El Niño and the January 2019 flood to hurricanes and more rain. No mention of flood control.

We (Bigger Pie) think flood control projects turn variations in normal rainfall into damaging floods. Our conclusion is consistent with the Woods Hole report. But it’s based on different methodology: analyses of Corps river stage records, NOAA rainfall records and reports and studies of Corps flood control projects.

Records show that the river began to rise and flood more about 1973 after the Corps completed flood control projects Congress authorized to increase flow downriver and to decrease its discharge to the Gulf. The unintended but inevitable consequence is the river is rising, backing up and flooding more. It’s like opening a faucet spigot while plugging half the drain. Here are some flooding metrics.

The river has averaged more than 11 feet higher the last 10 years at Natchez and more than nine feet higher at Vicksburg than it did in the 1950s. It has been above flood stage eight out of the last 10 years at Natchez and seven out of 10 at Vicksburg versus once in the ’50s. The land between the river channel and the hills at Natchez has flooded every year in the last decade versus four years in the ’50s (785 days versus 106 days). There have been four one-in-100-year floods on the lower Mississippi in the last 11 years. The odds are 325,000 to one against such a cluster of rare events, by coincidence.

Those defending the status quo say we are not qualified and cite experts to pooh-pooh our explanation. Experts also pooh-poohed our explanation of why Mississippi Power’s Kemper County Lignite Plant gasifier experiment wouldn’t work. But we were right. It didn’t work. And $6 billion later, the Mississippi Public Service Commission decided the company should pay for the plant — not customers.

 

Taxpayers have paid $14 billion for higher levees and other flood control projects under the Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries Project (MR&TP) Congress authorized in 1928. The Corps says this has saved more than $1 trillion in flood damage by preventing levee breaks.

The Corps ignores flood damage these projects cause. The last main line levee break was in 1937. Floods have increased since then as more flood control projects have been completed.

It flooded once every six years (17 percent) from 1937 to 1972. The river started to rise in 1973. It has flooded six years out of 10 (64 percent) since then and eight years out of the last 10 (80 percent). Floods are increasing at an increasing rate. And changing. The current flood rose bottom up (like water rising in a plugged drain), not top down. Natchez flooded first, then Vicksburg, then Greenville. 

Who are the flood victims? They are landowners and mineral owners, and their lessees including farmers, hunters, oil and gas and timber operators and their employees, and others who work and recreate along and on the river. Mississippi may have the most victims because its border between the river channel and the levees and hills that contain it is the longest and widest. It’s economy and bottomland wildlife habitat and wetlands may suffer the most too.

The Mississippi River is not straight. It meanders to find the shortest steepest flow path. The Corps has built more than 2000 miles of ever-higher levees to contain its meanders and ever-higher floods. (Higher levees cause higher floods.) Natural hills contain it on the east side from Vicksburg to Saint Francisville, La.

The border between the river channel and the levees/hills is called the batture. Mississippi has about 400 miles of frontage and 600,000 acres of batture on the river. There are more than 300,000 acres of batture on the west side of the river in Arkansas and Louisiana. Most of this is private property. The Corps floods it without permission or compensation.

When the river rises above its channel, it floods the batture. Its tributaries (e.g., the Yazoo River) back up and flood then too. These are called backwater floods. Batture and backwater floods covered more than 1.5 million acres in 2011 and caused $3 billion in estimated damages although no levees broke. Mississippi has more backwater flood acreage than any other state.

Corps flood control experiments show its theories don’t work in practice. They have made flooding worse. It’s time to unplug the drain. We need some relief.

Yogi: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice - in practice there is.”

Yep.

Kelley Williams, a Northsider, is chairman of Bigger Pie, a think tank promoting free markets and government efficiency.

 

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