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Mississippi flooding: Let the river run

Op-Ed

What began on the upper Missouri River in 1951 is playing out this month in the flooding of the lower Mississippi and dozens of communities in its delta.

May 25, 2011|By Paul VanDevelder
  • Michael Young builds a walkway to his Tiptonville, Mo., home, surrounded by floodwater. Heavy rains have also swollen rivers and caused widespread flooding in Tennessee, Illinois, Kentucky and Arkansas.
Michael Young builds a walkway to his Tiptonville, Mo., home, surrounded… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )

On a frosty May morning in 1951, a young woman named Louise Holding Eagle jumped into the cab of her pickup truck, waved goodbye to her husband and two toddlers, and drove off to buy groceries in Beulah, N.D., the nearest town, about 35 miles from their farm. Louise decided to make a day of it when she ran into old friends at the store, and finally turned for home at twilight.

"None of us had phones back then, but my husband Matthew was an easygoin' man, and I knew he wouldn't mind if I was late."

When she reached her driveway in full darkness, she thought she had been daydreaming and made a wrong turn. "I don't know how long I sat there before I realized I was home," Louise recalled for me more than half a century later. "This was our farm, all right! But everything was gone! The house, the chicken coop, the barn, my husband and children!"

Without a word of warning, written or verbal, an Army Corps of Engineers crew had arrived at Louise's farm that afternoon and lifted all the buildings off their foundations, loaded them onto flatbed trucks and relocated them 20 miles away. Her house had to be moved to make way for the first of five massive dams that Congress approved with the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1944. Construction had already begun on the dam near Garrison, N.D., but lawmakers in Washington were still locked in legislative limbo over just what to do with the thousands of people these dams would displace. Finally tiring of bureaucratic delays, the Army Corps of Engineers, an agency with a reputation for being a government unto itself, took matters into its own hands and commenced evacuating the bottomlands.

"The trauma of what we lived through when the dams came, losing our land, identity, livelihood, community, schools, hospitals, churches, you just can't imagine it unless you live through something like that," said Louise in 2003. "A lot of our old people just gave up and died."

What began on the upper Missouri River in 1951 is playing out this month in the flooding of the lower Mississippi and dozens of communities in its delta. This is a man-made disaster, the legacy of an earlier generation of politicians, farmers and ranchers who made a lot of bad (and very expensive) decisions to correct short-term problems on the Missouri River when the best available science — including findings in a 1934 corps report — warned Congress that those solutions would create dire long-term consequences.

The floodwaters released this month from the Morganza Spillway — to relieve pressure on Baton Rouge and New Orleans — will permanently disrupt the lives of thousands of citizens. John Barry, the author of "Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America," has been telling anyone who will listen that the devastation caused by the 2011 flood is a direct consequence of the five huge dams built downstream from Louise Holding Eagle's farm, under what is known as the Pick-Sloan Plan, 60 years ago.

Barry is echoing the fears of river hydrologists who have been predicting this catastrophe since the 1960s. The problem, as they view it, is straightforward. Spilling tens of millions of acre feet of water from dams on the upper Missouri (in years of heavy runoff) into a swollen Mississippi will turn the delta into a small ocean and threaten major urban centers on the lower Mississippi.

Had we not built dams on the Missouri, had we refrained from building homes and cities on Missouri River floodplains, periodic floods would have occurred, but without the catastrophic consequences we see today. Floods would have replenished the river bottoms with alluvial silts (producing bumper crops) and deposited nutrients on the barrier islands in the gulf. Those islands, which once protected New Orleans from violent gulf storms, have vanished in the 50 years since the dams were built. This double-whammy — New Orleans vulnerable to storms from the gulf side, and the lower Mississippi and its delta vulnerable to flooding from the upstream side — can be laid at the feet of Pick-Sloan.

When the Pick-Sloan Plan was approved — projected cost of $20 billion — it was the most expensive and ambitious public works project ever conceived by Congress. The scheme merged two proposals for managing the million-square-mile Missouri River basin and its "mad elephant of a river," the 2,400-mile-long Missouri. Its features included navigation, hydro-electric, irrigation and recreation. The Pick Plan, advanced by Col. Lewis Pick of the Army Corps of Engineers, was sold to members of Congress with the promise that Indian lands only — no white lands, towns and cities — would be inundated by the dams. The Sloan Plan, drafted by Bureau of Reclamation engineer Glenn Sloan, called for building 100 small dams across the region, and was championed by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who viewed the corps as a "lawless … self-serving clique in contempt of the public welfare."

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