• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

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The New Madrid Floodway and the Confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers

New Madrid Floodway, Bird's Point to New Madrid

New Madrid Floodway: Brewer Lake, Bird’s Point

Mississippi County, Missouri

Update, May 1 2011

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported this morning that the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals refused to overturn Judge Stephen Limbaug’s ruling that allows the Memphis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to blow up the low weak levee at Bird’s Point, Missouri and release flood water into the New Madrid Floodway. Doing so will reduce flood levels at Cairo, Illinois, directly upstream of the floodway.

Nevertheless, the Mayor of Cairo has ordered the evacuation of  the city of 2,800, where the flood is expected to crest at 60.5  feet, 3.5 feet below the top of the flood wall that protects the city. At the same time the 230 people who live in the floodway are evacuating and taking their farm equipment with them. An additional 800 are leaving, probably from East Prairie, Missouri, which lies just outside the floodway.

The Corps of Engineers are concerned about a sand boil that has erupted landward of the levee at Cairo, evidence that water is seeping under the earthen part of the levee. If the water in the sand boil is muddy, that is if it is carrying soil from the core of the levee, then it is undermining the levee. To counteract the sand boil, levee boards, those people who maintain the levee, build a ring of sand bags around the sand boil to contain it, raising it higher and higher as more and more water seeps under the levee. The engineers are concerned that if the flood lingers, it could saturate the levee, making it weaker.

In a related post, read about the problems the Corps of Engineers are having along the levee behind Lock and Dam 26 at Alton, Illinois. It will help you understand seepage and sand boils.

When the Corps of Engineers developed the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project after the Flood of 1927, they included three floodways to release floodwater from the Mississippi. The New Madrid Floodway is the northern most one. The second is the Morganza Floodway in Louisiana, just south of the Old River Control Structure, a dam in the main line levee that prevents the Mississippi from diverting to the Atchafalaya. To siphon off floodwater from the Mississippi, the Corps of Engineers would open the gates on the Morganza Floodway Structure, a second dam in the mainline levee, and release water to the floodway, which would carry it between guide levees to the Gulf of Mexico, bypassing New Orleans. The third floodway is at Bonne Carre, which releases water into Lake Pontchartrain.

Missouri’s suit against the Corps of Engineers is testimony to the fact, that we have set aside valuable farmland in order to build these floodways. Hence, we are reluctant to use them. The New Madrid Floodway has been used only once, in 1937. The Morganza Floodway was used once, in 1973 when a flood almost took out the Old River Control Structure. The Bonne Carre, 12 miles north of New Orleans, is used all the time and was last opened in 2008.

This years flooding along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers is shaping up into a big one, maybe as big as the Flood of 1927.

New Madrid Floodway: Brewer Lake, Bird’s Point

Mississippi County, Missouri

After I completed the first draft of The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I had an unwieldy book. The reviewer commented that I had a really good book, if I could figure out how to edit it. Beverly Jarrett, the director of the University of Missouri Press told me to cut the number of images, down to 200, and cut the captions, which went on for pages, down to 95% of the draft. Hence, I cut some of the material about the New Madrid Floodway. What follows is from the original draft of the book.

“From Charles Ellet, who proposed them in 1851, came floodways as a part of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project. The Corps designed the New Madrid Floodway to protect towns along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers north of Bird’s Point, Missouri. Between Bird’s Point and New Madrid the engineers returned land to the river by setting a levee five miles back from the mainline levee. They united the two levees with a fuse plug–a low, weak levee–that would blow in a flood, or failing that, be dynamited, diverting a flow of 550,000 cubic feet per second from the flooded Mississippi. The water would then be returned to the river just north of New Madrid. The Corps has opened this safety valve once, in the Flood of 1937.

In 1928 when General Edgar Jadwin and the Corps of Engineers designed the New Madrid Floodway as a part of the Mississippi River and Tributary project, the agency left a 1,500-foot gap at the foot of the setback levee for the release of floodwater. The built the fuse plug levee at Birds Point at the head of the floodway. Brewer Lake, lined with cypress and running through agricultural fields, lies just inside the Birds Point-New Madrid Levee.

The engineers used the lower third of the floodway as a backwater storage area in the same vein as the backwaters of the Yazoo, St. Francis, and Red River basins. To compensate landowners for the use of their land for the floodway, the agency purchased flood easements on ground lying above three hundred feet in elevation, all in the upper two-thirds of the floodway. It wasn’t necessary to purchase easements in the lower third, because the Mississippi backed into it every time it flooded.

It was the floodway’s role as a backwater storage area that created an uproar at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project promised to eliminate backwater flooding in the New Madrid Floodway.” After much litigation the Corps of Engineers dropped the St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project, but suddenly the New Madrid Floodway is a problem again: Missouri’s Attorney General Koster has filed a suit in Federal Court to block the Corps of Engineers from opening the floodway at Bird’s Point, Missouri, the head of the floodway.

It’s getting nasty out there: The Mississippi is in full flood; the Ohio is in full flood. Should the Ohio be in flood and the Mississippi not, it backs up into the Mississippi, causing quiet, lake-like conditions. Should the Mississippi be in flood and the Ohio not, its current rages  toward a lower Ohio. When both are in flood, that’s trouble.  Flooding on April 24 was the worst the Memphis District has seen since it last opened the floodway in 1937. Its time to open the New Madrid Floodway again.

The Memphis District of the Corps of Engineers starts planning for a flood when the gage at Cairo, Illinois reaches 49 feet. It did on March 7. The engineers have the authority to open the floodway at Bird’s Point when the gage at Cairo reaches 58 feet and is moving on up to 61 feet and more.

Koster is concerned that opening the floodway to relieve flooding in the City of Cairo, Illinois will flood 100 houses and 130,000 acres of valuable farmland and take it out of production for ten years. He wants to make sure that the Corps mitigates the flood before the floodway is opened a Bird’s Point.

American Bottom, 1993

During the Flood of 1993, the Columbia levee broke and turned the American Bottom, a vast agricultural floodplain, into a floodway that stretched clear south to Prairie du Rocher, where the Corps of Engineers broke open the levee to release floodway from the bottoms. I don’t remember that it took ten years to get the land back into production.

Sand, washed into the American Bottom during the Flood of 1993, had to be cleared from the land before it could be returned to production.


8 Responses

  1. As of this very moment, the Ohio at Cairo is 57.11 ft – I imagine the Corps will make their decision tonight. As you point out, flooding the New Madrid Floodway is unlikely to be as damaging as Koster makes out. What is not clear to me is just how catastrophic not utilizing this spill land will be, but I’m guessing a lot of property is at risk.

  2. I’ve appreciated the background you offered here, and I’m glad the decision wasn’t mine. There’s nothing to do now but wait and see what happens.

    I feel so badly for the farmers. Even if the promised federal aid comes through without a hitch, there’s loss in life that’s more than financial. Knowing your land might be purposely flooded “some day” doesn’t make it any easier when it happens.

  3. I have found this information to be great. I applaud the research that you have done on this, and at this time, it’s a great resource for not only the news agencies of S.E. Missouri, Southern Illinois, Western Kentucky, Tennessee and Northeast Arkansas but to the residents who live near or are affected by this current flood.

    Thank you.

  4. I’m curious about all of the concern about farmland being destroyed by the flooding. I understand it would be a problem in the current growing season, but isn’t this area the productive farm paradise that it is due to the Mississippi River and the silt deposition that has occurred from its flooding until humans created the levees?

    • I’m curious about the complaints about silt too. The rush of water will tear up the land to some extent, particularly at the break. But once the floodway fills, and before water is released, the floodway will probably become a big lake, and sediment in the water will settle out. If it is mud, it will enrich the fields. If it is mostly sand, well, sand is sterile and will have to be removed.

      Before the levees, the flooded river rose slowly and fell slowly and washed in new silt, which did enrich the soil. When the French first settled on the American Bottom at Kaskaskia and Cahokia, the found the soil very rich and grew wheat by merely tossing out the seed.

  5. Silt does not enrich land over night it will be years before the land will be back to where it was.
    It hurt to find out you about to loose everything you have work for all your life! decided by someone who could care less.
    There is alot more at stake here then silt.

  6. […] and see there land flooded every year the Mississippi Floods. If you remember, two years ago the floodway was opened to provide extra storage capacity for the flooded Mississippi. But every time the river floods […]

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