• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

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The Mississippi Delta: The Steele Bayou Structure and Interior Flooding in the Yazoo Backwater Area

Streams that run through the Yazoo Backwater Area

Those backwater lands have had a rather unfortunate history. Like any other great project usually some section has to be consequentially damaged for the benefit of the larger communities and there are plantations, old plantations which were profitably worked before the big levee system was built which have been allowed to go back into brush and timber because they are flooded by these backwaters now.

“We considered two plans for the Yazoo. One was for a line of levees to extend from the end of the existing levee of the Mississippi River, up to the vicinity of Yazoo City, where it would hook into the headwater levees of the Yazoo headwater project.

“The levee would cross the Sunflower River and, therefore, would impound the drainage of the Sunflower system and Deer Creek and the other tributaries behind the levee when the Mississippi was high. That would require pumping to keep the sump area down to a reasonable area. The other plan considered was to run levees up the Sunflower and leave it open to flow into the Mississippi in times of flood, and that project proved much more complicated in its handling of drainage and more expensive than a simple one of running one line of levees and damming the Sunflower,”–General Max C. Tyler, Corps of Engineers and President of the Mississippi River Commission, Testimony before the Committee on Flood Control, House of Representatives, May 8, 1941[i]

Big Sunflower River at Holly Bluff

After the Flood of 1927, Congress ordered the Corps of Engineers to reengineer the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Gen. Edgar Jadwin designed the river for “a project flood.” First, he beefed up the levees and made them uniform from Cairo to the Gulf of Mexico. Second he built upland reservoirs on the Mississippi tributaries—the St. Francis, the White, the Arkansas, and the Yazoo. The reservoirs would retain floodwater in the uplands until the big river could handle it. Then he set aside the floodways to siphon water off the flooded river and relieve pressure on the levees.

From The Mississippi: A Visual Biography: “In addition to the floodways and the reservoirs, Gen. Edgar Jadwin, and Gen. Harley Ferguson after him, designated the lower portions of the St. Francis, the White, the Yazoo, and the Red River basins as flood storage areas, where the flooded Mississippi could back up behind the levees and flood these regions. While the backwater storage areas lowered flood stages on the Mississippi, they created resentment among people whose lands where given over to flood storage, yearly. Hence, the Corps added levee protection for 1,930 square miles of the lower St. Francis Basin and along the west bank of the Yazoo River in the Yazoo Basin to protect valuable farmland from backwater flooding. In adding levee protection the Corps of Engineers acknowledged that it would turn both basins into bowls that interior streams and drainage canals would fill with their own floods. Gates in the levees or pumps would be needed to dry them out.”

Deer Creek at Leland

Major General Max C. Tyler laid out the problems caused in the Yazoo backwater by the flooded Mississippi in May 1941. When Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1941, it added the Yazoo Backwater Project to the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project and authorized the Corps of Engineers to extend the Mississippi levee up the west bank of the Yazoo River to protect the Yazoo Backwater Area. When completed the levee would prevent the lower Yazoo and the Mississippi from back-flooding the lower third of the Yazoo Basin. However, flooding along the streams inside the levee would pool behind it. Hence, Congress authorized the installation of floodgates in the levee to allow for gravity drainage and a pump that would be turned on when the Mississippi and Yazoo ran ninety feet above sea level, too high for gravity drainage. The pump would operate at the rate of 14,000 cubic feet per second.

The levee was built, the drainage structure at the foot of Steele Bayou was built in 1969, a second drainage structure at the foot of the Little Sunflower River was built in 1975, a fifteen-mile long channel, funneling water from the Big and Little Sunflower Rivers, Deer Creek, and Steele Bayou to the Steele Bayou Drainage Structure was completed in 1978. The pump was not.[ii]

Steele Bayou Drainage Structure

The Steele Bayou structure is located eight miles upstream from the confluence of the Yazoo with the Mississippi.[iii] Behind and in front of the structure are sumps, low areas, which do not permit the escape of water by gravity flow.[iv] The sump directly behind the structure is maintained at seventy feet above sea level. The Corps of Engineers closes the gates in the structure when the either the Mississippi or the Yazoo runs higher than seventy feet. Should the Big Sunflower, Little Sunflower, Steele Bayou, and Deer Creek also be in flood, water backs up behind the control structure. When spring flooding recedes, the Corps opens in the gates of the structure, the water flows out, and the fields dry out and stay dry for the summer. Yazoo backwater farmers plant soybeans with their short growing season.

It’s 2011 and the Mississippi is in full flood. It has backed up into the Yazoo River and the Steele Bayou Structure, which prevents the Yazoo from backing up in the Yazoo Backwater Area, is closed. But all those interior streams, mainly ancient channels of the Mississippi are flowing south through the Yazoo Basin and pooling against the structures and their attendant levees. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger had a great illustration of the possible flooding in the Yazoo backwater on May 5.

The Yazoo Backwater Area--Possible extent of interior flooding

[i] U.S. Congress, House Committee on Flood Control, Hearings before the Committee on Flood Control, House of Representatives, 77th Congress, First Session on H.R. 4911, A Bill Authorizing the Construction of Certain Public Works on Rivers and Harbors for Flood Control, and for Other Purposes, April 21 to May 14, 1941, Washington, D.C.: United State Government Printing Office, 1941, 655-656.

[ii] Camillo, Charles A., Pearcy, Matthew T., Upon Their Shoulders:  A History of the Mississippi River Commission from its Inception through the advent of the Modern Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, http://www.mvd.usace.army.mil/mrc/Upon_There_Shoulders/Chapter12.htm; Mississippi Levee Board, “75th Anniversary 1927 Flood, How far Have we Come?,” 4, http://www.msleveeboard.com/www.msleveeboard.com/Levee%20Board%20Insert.qxd.pdf.

[iii] U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg District, “Yazoo Backwater Project, Yazoo River Tributaries, Mississippi, Steele Bayou Drainage Structure,” http;//www.mvd.usace.mil/lmveteg/docs/vick.pi065.htm; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg District, “Yazoo Backwater Area Reformulation, Main Report,” September 2000, http://www.mvk.usace.army.mil/offices/pp/Yazoobackwater/docs/oomain/pdf, 16-19.

[iv] CalTrans, Highway Design Manual, Chapter 800-General Aspects, Topic 806, Definition of Drainage Terms, “Sump,” http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/oppd/hdm/chapters/t806.htm/#806-2.


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