• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

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New Madrid Floodway

Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area in the New Madrid Floodway

Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area in the New Madrid Floodway

How many times do we have to petition to stop the closing of the New Madrid Floodway? Once again its closure in on the agenda. Find the petition here: http://org2.salsalabs.com/o/7288/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=23677.

Please sign.

If you do a search for New Madrid Floodway in the search box, you will find all my postings on this subject.

In the meantime read this from 2013 if you want to understand how the floodway came about, its importance for flood control on the Lower Mississippi, and importance to places like Ten Mile Pond and Big Oak Tree State Park.

It’s baaaack: The closure of the foot of the New Madrid Floodway is back on the agenda of folks who farm the floodway 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 water backs up into the floodway at its foot.

It seems that Senator Roy Blunt is pressuring the Obama Administration to go forward with the closure of the floodway by putting a hold on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

I cut the following essay from The Mississippi, because the issue had been resolved in 2007 when U.S. District Judge James Robertson of the District of Columbia ordered the project halted and the work already accomplished dismantled. It had not. Soon after the Memphis District of the US Army Corps of Engineers began working to satisfy the court’s objections to the closure of the floodway. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others who object to the project or no more satisfied with it as it stands now than they were when the judge ruled in 2007. These things never go away. This link will help you understand where the project stands now.

The following is the full story as it stood in 2007:

The St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project

In 1928 when General Edgar Jadwin and the Corps of Engineers designed the New Madrid Floodway, the agency left a 1,500-foot gap at the foot of the setback levee for the release of floodwater and installed a fuse plug levee at Birds Point at its head. The designers understood that the lower third would become a backwater storage area. To compensate landowners for the use of their land, the agency purchased flood easements in the upper two-thirds. That wasn’t necessary in the lower third, which would flood with the river every time. It was the floodway’s role as a backwater storage area that created an uproar at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the Crops published its plan for the St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project, which promised to eliminate backwater flooding in the New Madrid Floodway.

The Water Resources Development Act of 1986 authorized the dredging of St. Johns Bayou for flood control, the St. Johns Bayou Pump Station, which included a gated culvert across the foot of the bayou, and the New Madrid Pump Station and a gated culvert set in the 1,500-gap in the setback levee of the New Madrid Floodway. St. Johns Bayou Basin is located between the setback levee and Sikeston Ridge. The gated culverts would halt backwater flooding from the river, but assure interior flooding in both St. Johns Bayou basin, located between the setback levee and Sikeston River, and in the New Madrid Floodway. The pumps would clear water ponding behind the closed culverts. The culvert across St. Johns Bayou was built. In 1997 the Memphis District of the Corps of Engineers filed its intent to prepare and environmental impact study of the project.

Environmentalists, river conservationists, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and taxpayer watchdogs: all objected. They balked at closing the last connection the Mississippi had to its floodplain in Missouri, at the $65 million cost, at the damage that would be done to Big Oak Tree State Park, at the loss of spawning habitat for fishes and wintering places for waterfowl, to the channelizing of St. Johns Bayou and other drainage ditches. They complained that the project would benefit a handful of big landowners. They noted that East Prairie in the St. Johns Bayou Basin would continue to flood due to runoff from roofs and parking lots. They encouraged the Corps to find non-structural solutions to the flooding problems, including a ring levee around East Prairie.

The East Prairie Enterprise Community, the local sponsor of the project, and other residents of Swampeast, weren’t interested in environmentalists’ concerns. East Prairie residents complained that a ring levee would cut them off from the rest of the world. Farmers gave little support to the Wetland Reserve Program. They had rejected a 1993 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offer to purchase land in the St. Johns Bayou basin for a national wildlife refuge at fair market value. Nor were they interested in converting their lands from crops to timber.

In September 2000 the Memphis District sought to please both the environmentalists and the residents of Mississippi County when it revised its plan. The floodgate and the pumps would stay, but the following changes would be made: the Corps would dredge only the St. Johns Bayou-St. James Bayou drainage ditch, reduce its width from 200 feet to 120 feet, and excavate only one side to avoid cutting into forests. The engineers would not dredge the upper 3.7 miles of St. James Bayou Ditch to avoid the habitat of the golden topminnow, a state endangered fish; would avoid mussel beds or relocate them and set up a ten-year monitoring program. They would set rock structures in the channels to enhance fish habitat; move water in and out of the lower reaches of the floodway and the basin for winter and early spring waterfowl and to allow spawning fish to pass to and from the river; purchase conservation easements on 765 acres of herbaceous land along the channel to replace shorebird habitat; reforest 9,557 acres of seasonally flooded cropland. At Big Oak Tree State Park they would build a control structure to regulate water in its swamps–enough for the cypress, but not too much for the oaks.

Big Oak Tree State Park

The Corps published essentially the same plan in June 2002, but added the construction of the wildlife corridor between Big Oak Tree Park and the Ten Mile Pond conservation area and riparian buffers along sixty-four miles of streams and drainage channels to filter water flowing to Big Oak Tree. Most important, the engineers made the commitment to the restoration of Big Oak Tree, purchasing and reforesting 1,800 acres surrounding the park and restoring the park’s hydrologic connection to the Mississippi with water control structures in the park, a canal with gated culverts set in the mainline levee to allow water to flow between the park and the river. The cost of the new plan came to $85 million dollars and still did not satisfy the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the owner of Big Oak Tree Park.

In 2004 the Memphis District issued a contract for the construction of the New Madrid closure and the pump, but stopped work on the project when National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund filed suit in Federal Court, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.

In December 2005 the Corps published a second Revised Supplemental Environmental Impact that would allow fish to spawn in the sumps behind the culverts and would reestablish the hydrological connection between Big Oak Tree and St. James Bayou through a culvert in the levee.

The Corps pointed out repeatedly that the success of the project depended on finding people willing to sell their land for mitigation to add 1,800 acres to Big Oak Tree State Park or the addition 1037 acres needed for the wildlife corridor and riparian buffers.

In the fall of 2006 the Corps of Engineers started work on the project, even after being told they would likely lose the Federal suit filed two years earlier. The suit came to fruition in September 2007, when U.S. District Judge James Robertson of the District of Columbia ordered the project halted and the work already accomplished dismantled.

 

The St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project

1 Mississippi is hosting a webinar on Monday, June 17 at 2:00 PM CDT on the proposal to close the New Madrid Floodway at its foot. Click here:  https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/8363148575022700544 to register for the webinar.

It’s baaaack: The closure of the foot of the New Madrid Floodway is back on the agenda of folks who farm the floodway 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 water backs up into the floodway at its foot.

It seems that Senator Roy Blunt is pressuring the Obama Administration to go forward with the closure of the floodway by putting a hold on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

I cut the following essay from The Mississippi, because the issue had been resolved in 2007 when U.S. District Judge James Robertson of the District of Columbia ordered the project halted and the work already accomplished dismantled. It had not. Soon after the Memphis District of the US Army Corps of Engineers began working to satisfy the court’s objections to the closure of the floodway. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others who object to the project or no more satisfied with it as it stands now than they were when the judge ruled in 2007. These things never go away. This link will help you understand where the project stands now.

The following is the full story as it stood in 2007:

Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area in the New Madrid Floodway

Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area in the New Madrid Floodway

The St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project

In 1928 when General Edgar Jadwin and the Corps of Engineers designed the New Madrid Floodway, the agency left a 1,500-foot gap at the foot of the setback levee for the release of floodwater and installed a fuse plug levee at Birds Point at its head. The designers understood that the lower third would become a backwater storage area. To compensate landowners for the use of their land, the agency purchased flood easements in the upper two-thirds. That wasn’t necessary in the lower third, which would flood with the river every time. It was the floodway’s role as a backwater storage area that created an uproar at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the Crops published its plan for the St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project, which promised to eliminate backwater flooding in the New Madrid Floodway.

The Water Resources Development Act of 1986 authorized the dredging of St. Johns Bayou for flood control, the St. Johns Bayou Pump Station, which included a gated culvert across the foot of the bayou, and the New Madrid Pump Station and a gated culvert set in the 1,500-gap in the setback levee of the New Madrid Floodway. St. Johns Bayou Basin is located between the setback levee and Sikeston Ridge. The gated culverts would halt backwater flooding from the river, but assure interior flooding in both St. Johns Bayou basin, located between the setback levee and Sikeston River, and in the New Madrid Floodway. The pumps would clear water ponding behind the closed culverts. The culvert across St. Johns Bayou was built. In 1997 the Memphis District of the Corps of Engineers filed its intent to prepare and environmental impact study of the project.

Environmentalists, river conservationists, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and taxpayer watchdogs: all objected. They balked at closing the last connection the Mississippi had to its floodplain in Missouri, at the $65 million cost, at the damage that would be done to Big Oak Tree State Park, at the loss of spawning habitat for fishes and wintering places for waterfowl, to the channelizing of St. Johns Bayou and other drainage ditches. They complained that the project would benefit a handful of big landowners. They noted that East Prairie in the St. Johns Bayou Basin would continue to flood due to runoff from roofs and parking lots. They encouraged the Corps to find non-structural solutions to the flooding problems, including a ring levee around East Prairie.

The East Prairie Enterprise Community, the local sponsor of the project, and other residents of Swampeast, weren’t interested in environmentalists’ concerns. East Prairie residents complained that a ring levee would cut them off from the rest of the world. Farmers gave little support to the Wetland Reserve Program. They had rejected a 1993 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offer to purchase land in the St. Johns Bayou basin for a national wildlife refuge at fair market value. Nor were they interested in converting their lands from crops to timber.

In September 2000 the Memphis District sought to please both the environmentalists and the residents of Mississippi County when it revised its plan. The floodgate and the pumps would stay, but the following changes would be made: the Corps would dredge only the St. Johns Bayou-St. James Bayou drainage ditch, reduce its width from 200 feet to 120 feet, and excavate only one side to avoid cutting into forests. The engineers would not dredge the upper 3.7 miles of St. James Bayou Ditch to avoid the habitat of the golden topminnow, a state endangered fish; would avoid mussel beds or relocate them and set up a ten-year monitoring program. They would set rock structures in the channels to enhance fish habitat; move water in and out of the lower reaches of the floodway and the basin for winter and early spring waterfowl and to allow spawning fish to pass to and from the river; purchase conservation easements on 765 acres of herbaceous land along the channel to replace shorebird habitat; reforest 9,557 acres of seasonally flooded cropland. At Big Oak Tree State Park they would build a control structure to regulate water in its swamps–enough for the cypress, but not too much for the oaks.

Big Oak Tree State Park

Big Oak Tree State Park

The Corps published essentially the same plan in June 2002, but added the construction of the wildlife corridor between Big Oak Tree Park and the Ten Mile Pond conservation area and riparian buffers along sixty-four miles of streams and drainage channels to filter water flowing to Big Oak Tree. Most important, the engineers made the commitment to the restoration of Big Oak Tree, purchasing and reforesting 1,800 acres surrounding the park and restoring the park’s hydrologic connection to the Mississippi with water control structures in the park, a canal with gated culverts set in the mainline levee to allow water to flow between the park and the river. The cost of the new plan came to $85 million dollars and still did not satisfy the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the owner of Big Oak Tree Park.

In 2004 the Memphis District issued a contract for the construction of the New Madrid closure and the pump, but stopped work on the project when National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund filed suit in Federal Court, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.

In December 2005 the Corps published a second Revised Supplemental Environmental Impact that would allow fish to spawn in the sumps behind the culverts and would reestablish the hydrological connection between Big Oak Tree and St. James Bayou through a culvert in the levee.

The Corps pointed out repeatedly that the success of the project depended on finding people willing to sell their land for mitigation to add 1,800 acres to Big Oak Tree State Park or the addition 1037 acres needed for the wildlife corridor and riparian buffers.

In the fall of 2006 the Corps of Engineers started work on the project, even after being told they would likely lose the Federal suit filed two years earlier. The suit came to fruition in September 2007, when U.S. District Judge James Robertson of the District of Columbia ordered the project halted and the work already accomplished dismantled.

The Flood of 2011 and the Atchafalaya Delta

“Artificial levees, extending clear to the Gulf of Mexico, may have made human habitation of the delta south of Cape Girardeau possible, but prevented the Mississippi from refreshing its marshes with its sediment when it did flood. Revetments built of concrete mats may have stabilized the navigation channel, but reduced erosion of the banks, a source of sediment in the marshes. James Eads’ jetties at the mouth of the river may have allowed the river to cut a thirty-foot navigation channel through the sandbar blocking the South Pass of the modern delta, but delivered sediment carried by the river to very deep water at the continental shelf, where it washed away, never to be used for marsh building. Closure of the old distributaries of the river may have prevented flooding in the bayou country of Louisiana, but cut the flow of Mississippi sediment to the coastal marshes. Channel dams may have made navigation on the Upper Mississippi profitable, but they retained its sediment north of Alton, Illinois. Dams on the Missouri, from which the Mississippi drew sixty percent of its sediment, did the same. In short at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the coastal marshes south of New Orleans received eighty percent less sediment than they had at the beginning of the twentieth and eroded away.”

I haven’t counted the number of posts I have begun with this quote from The Mississippiand I am doing so again.

Morganza Floodway Structure

Twice, 1973 and 2011, since it was constructed after the Flood of 1927, we have opened the Morganza Floodway Structure to release flood water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya River and Floodway. After the Flood of 1973, geologists noted that the Atchafalaya River was building land at its mouth, using all that mud funneled down the Mississippi from erosion from the Midwest and the South.

With this in mind geologists from the University of Pennsylvania–joined by others from the University of Mississippi, Louisiana State University, and the U.S. Geological Survey–began studying the sediment plumes that spewed out of the Mississippi, the Atchafalaya River and Wax Lake Outlet, and through the Bonnet Carre Spillway into Lake Pontchartrain during the Flood of 2011.

Sediment Plumes from the Atchafalaya, Mississippi, and Bonnet Carre

Atchafalaya Delta, 2009

The Atchafalaya slowly spread a wide plume of sediment in to Atchafalaya Bay, where it is building land. The Mississippi, which is too long and too flat and is hemmed between levees, is shooting its mud over the edge of the continental shelf, where it is useless for landbuilding.

Wax Lake Outlet Delta

Similarly, the Wax Lake Outlet, an artificial outlet from the Atchafalaya Basin, built to reduce flooding in the basin, is building its delta.

What is happening in Atchafalaya Bay is what happened naturally before we reengineered the Mississippi for flood control and navigation. Now that we have done it, we have to live with the consequences and find ways to restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands by mimicking the river’s ways. The Atchafalaya is an example. So is the Mardi Gras diversion at Bohemia, which opened up into Breton Sound this spring during Mardi Gras.

The Mississippi Ridge at Bohemia south of the end of the main line levee

The question about the Mardi Gras Diversion is whether we are going to keep it or dam it. It is an example of what is being done on a small scale and can be done on a large scale along the Mississippi south of New Orleans.

Mardi Gras Pass: Keep it or Dam It

Mississippi River Ridge at Bohemia

While folks partied in the streets of New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, the Mississippi River gave the State of Louisiana a gift, a freebie. The river broke through the low ridge at Bohemia, south of the end of the Main Line levee, and began pouring sediment into Breton Sound to the east. The river is doing for free what the state would have the Federal Government pay $50 billion over 50 years to rebuild barrier island and to divert the Mississippi to Breton Sound on the east and the Barataria Basin on the west. State engineers already had a plan on the books to create a similar diversion into Breton Sound a mere mile from the Bohemia siphon, where the breach occurred.

Bohemia Siphon along the Mississippi

The site of the breech was the old, inoperable siphon, designed to deliver fresh water from the river to the wetlands in the sound. The siphon opens onto a spillway, created in 1924 as a means of relieving flooding in New Orleans. However, this spillway is 45 miles south of New Orleans. After the Flood of 1927 the Bonne Carre Spillway and the Achafalaya and Morganza Spillways were design to siphon water from a flood Mississippi before it reached New Orleans.

Sites of Bohemia Siphon and the Oil Facility on the End of the Road on the Mississippi Ridge

Now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given Houston-based Eland/Sundown Energy permission to seal the crevasse, dam it in order to rebuild the road to their work facility not more than two or three miles down the road, where it ends at a gate to its yard.

Right now the Mississippi is low, very low and the spillway is delivery fresh water and sediment at a much slower rate than the 50,000 cubic feet per second the state-designed spillway would flow. But water and sediment is flowing to Breton Sound. It is a gift from the Flood of 2011. The river will rise again, flood, and spill more water through the breach, enlarging it and sending more water and sediment to the Bohemia Wildlife Management Area and Breton Sound.

Breton Sound at the Bohemia State Wildlife Management Area just off Pointe a la Hache

In 2005 Katrina roared across the Mississippi south of the siphon, and tore north through Breton Sound and Lake Borgne tearing up the wetlands and busting through the levees that protected St. Bernard Parish, trashing the towns there. Then it tore across the wetlands that protects that lovely string of towns on the the State of  Mississippi coast–Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Gulf Port, and Biloxi–and destroyed them. Had those wetlands in Breton Sound been in tact, Katrina would not have been as devastating. Never mind what happened after it arrived in Lake Pontchartrain, washed into the canals that drain every drop of water that falls on New Orleans, and collapsed the levees that contained them, flooding the city.

  •  (quintascott.wordpress.com)

The Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri: A Model Restoration Project

Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, from the Lewis and Clark Memorial on the Illinois Side of the Mississippi

I spent thirty years trying to get to the Confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. I drove there, I rode my bike there, but I never quite reached it. I always found myself lost in a farmer’s corn field. Thanks to the Flood of 1993, the folks who farmed this frequently flooded land gave up and sold the land to the State of Missouri for a park on the north side of the Missouri River and a conservation area on its south side.

Until a few years ago the Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers was a deep, dark secret. Impossible to get to. There was no way to get there on the Missouri side of the Mississippi. The only way to see it was to find your way to the old Lewis and Clark Memorial on the Illinois side of the river, and even then it was difficult to locate where the Missouri actually streamed into the Mississippi on the opposite side of the river. I was lucky in the very cold winter of 2001 to see ice stream out of the mouth of the Missouri and into the ice-free Mississippi, where ice was trapped behind Lock and Dam 25.  From there I could see how the two rivers flow side by side in the Mississippi channel, the Missouri on the west, the Mississippi on the east.

Mud Flows out of the Missouri at its Confluence with the Mississippi

If you were lucky and could fly low over the Confluence, you could see how Missouri River mud flows on the west and the relatively clear Mississippi flows on the east.

From The Mississippi: A Visual Biography:

“Two refuges overlook the confluence. On the south bank of the Missouri the Missouri Department of Conservation purchased the 4,318-acre Columbia Bottoms in 1997, after the 1993 flood overtopped a levee and washed sand and debris over prime agricultural fields. The department opened the new conservation area–recreated shallow wetlands and bottomland forests with a viewing stand on the bank–in 2002. The State of Missouri acquired 1,121 acres for a state park in 2001 on Mobile Island, built a short wheelchair-accessible walk to Confluence Point, and planned to restore the wetlands and prairies of the natural floodplain behind it, using native trees and plants.”

Confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi as seen from Edward and Pat Jones State Park on the north side of the Missouri River.

From the Edward and Pat Jones State Park you can dip your toe into the Missouri on the right side of Confluence Point or into the Mississippi on the left. And you can see how the Missouri rushes out of its mouth a roils the relatively placid waters of the Mississippi.  Come flood time this park is closed, but when it is open it is a short trek along a wheelchair accessible walk to the tip of Mobile Island.

Confluence, Columbia Bottoms, South Side of the Missouri

Only in the most severe floods is the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area with its observation platform closed.

School field trip at the Columbia Bottoms Observation Platform

There is more to the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area than the observation platform. When the river is down, it is possible to descend the bank into the Duck Island Side Channel. Anglers have known of this place since the Missouri Department of Conservation opened the refuge to visitors in 2002. Maybe, some of them had better luck than I and knew how to get there before the refuge opened in 2002.

Anglers fish from a mud flat at the Confluence at Columbia Bottoms

Once down on the mud flats,  it is possible to hike the training structures that prevent the Missouri from flowing into Duck Island Chute.

Dike or Training Structure in Duck Island Chute

And it is possible to hike Duck Island Chute itself.

Duck Island Chute

The conservation department has restored the floodplain at Columbia Bottoms to fields and wetlands and built a terrific visitors center at the entrance to the refuge.

Columbia Bottoms Slough

Finally, on the Illinois side of the river, the State of Illinois has built a museum and a reproduction of Lewis and Clark’s Camp DuBois from which they launched their expedition up the Missouri River in 1804 at the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site.

Reproduction of the Lewis and Clark boat at the Museum in Hartford, Illinois

Perhaps, it is for all these reasons that the U.S. Department of the Interior has named the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers Confluence Restoration Project on of the eleven model projects in the America’s Great Outdoors Rivers program. The restoration project is the work of 40 agencies, both public and private, to the benefit of migratory birds and other wildlife, and we humans.

Tap the Mississippi to Relieve the Parched West and the Colorado River

Colorado River runs through the Grand Canyon near Peach Springs, Arizona

The Colorado River is tapped out. So the Bureau of Reclamation and the people who live in the Colorado Basin are eyeing the Mississippi to relieve some of the demands we have put on the Colorado.

The Bureau of Reclamation?: Think the Corps of Engineers for the western states. While the job of the Corps of Engineers is to control flooding on the Mississippi and its tributaries, the job of the Bureau of Reclamation is get water for drinking and irrigation to the parched states west of the Great Plains. It also provides hydroelectric power to those states. Where the Corps of Engineers manages the Mississippi, the Bureau of Reclamation manages the Colorado and the Columbia.

To get water to all those farmers and electricity to all those cities it has dredged canals and constructed dams and power plants. It has also allowed the sparsely settled west of the early 20th century grow into the densely populated cities of the 21st. All those people and all those farmers need water to irrigate their lawns and their vegetable crops and to light their cities. Actually, the farmers are competing with the city dwellers for water and when push comes to shove the farmers lose.

Lake Mead

It took 19 years to fill Lake Mead, upstream of the Hoover Dam, to 24 million acre-feet. Between 1998 and 2007, Lake Mead, which serves Las Vegas and its surrounds, lost 54% of its water.

Lower Mississippi at Riddles Point, Missouri south of the Ohio

One solution is to tap the Mississippi River just below its confluence with the Ohio and send the water to the Navajo River in southwest Colorado through a 775 mile=long pipe 144 inches in diameter. From their it would flow to the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado. Agricultural users in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico would cease their demands on the Colorado, leaving it free to serve the cities. The history of the Corps of Engineers’ interventions on the Mississippi River is the story of the law of unintended consequences.

To repeat what I have written before in The Mississippi:

“Artificial levees, extending clear to the Gulf of Mexico, may have made human habitation of the delta south of Cape Girardeau possible, but prevented the Mississippi from refreshing its marshes with its sediment when it did flood. Revetments built of concrete mats may have stabilized the navigation channel, but reduced erosion of the banks, a source of sediment in the marshes. James Eads’ jetties at the mouth of the river may have allowed the river to cut a thirty-foot navigation channel through the sandbar blocking the South Pass of the modern delta, but delivered sediment carried by the river to very deep water at the continental shelf, where it washed away, never to be used for marsh building. Closure of the old distributaries of the river may have prevented flooding in the bayou country of Louisiana, but cut the flow of Mississippi sediment to the coastal marshes. Channel dams may have made navigation on the Upper Mississippi profitable, but they retained its sediment north of Alton, Illinois. Dams on the Missouri, from which the Mississippi drew sixty percent of its sediment, did the same. In short at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the coastal marshes south of New Orleans received eighty percent less sediment than they had at the beginning of the twentieth and eroded away.”

According to Amy Joi O’Donoghue, who had written an excellent series of articles in Deseret News, which is published in Salt Lake City, folks in Utah and other states served by the Bureau of Reclamation look at the Flood of 2011 and say the Mississippi has more water than is needed in the Midwestern and Southern states that border it.

Breton Sound: Bohemia Wildlife Management Area

But the Louisiana coastal marshes, particularly those in the Barataria Basin and Breton Sound, need the fresh water and mud that the Mississippi delivered to the Gulf of Mexico during floods like that of 2011 to rebuild its wetlands and protect its cities, including New Orleans. The cities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which were wiped out during Katrina, could also use some solid wetlands out front in the Gulf of Mexico. During the BP Flood of Oil in 2010, freshwater flowing out of the Mississippi helped push some of that oil away from the wetlands.

Barataria Basin: Fresh Marsh, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, Barataria Unit

So yes, we in the Mississippi River Basin occasionally have way too much water, but tapping the Mississippi year after year, flood or drought, could have the kind of unintended consequences that building the levees had and that constructing the dams on the Missouri had on the Louisiana Coast.

The time is fast approaching when we Americans are going to have to sort out how we manage freshwater, be it in the Mississippi Basin or in the Colorado Basin and other western river basins.

The Mardi Gras Diversion at Bohemia

The Mississippi Ridge at Bohemia south of the end of the main line levee

On February 28, New Orleans partied at Mardi Gras, the Mississippi broke through the Mississippi ridge and created a crevasse at the Bohemia Spillway, a couple of miles south of the end of the Main Line Levee, and began delivering precious fresh water and sediment to Breton Sound, which has experienced extreme losses of marshland.

It’s a gift and we can thank the Flood of 2011 for it. All that stood in the way of the crevasse was a slightly elevated gravel road, which the flood washed away last summer. Below are two captions that I cut from The Mississippi: A Visual Biography.

As you will see below, the crevasse represents a potential savings of $6.4 million, if the Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana DNR were to do the work. What the river did by itself may need tidying up, but that work can be done by the Corps and the DNR.

 

Breton Sound at the Bohemia State Wildlife Management Area just off Pointe a la Hache

Mississippi River Ridge: Pointe a la Hache Relief Outlet

Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana

“It is remarkable, that the banks of the river are much more elevated than the circumjacent country. This is occasioned by a more copious deposition along the margins, than at a distance from them. These are thickly covered with grass, and a vast variety of ligneous plants, which serve to filtrate the waters in their progress to the low grounds and swamps, and to retain the greatest proportion of the alluvious substances. Hence the lands along the banks to a certain depth, generally from four hundred to seven hundred yards are excellent for tillage; while the whole surface in the rear of them, extending to the sea, is alternately covered by lakes and impassable swamps.”–Major Amos Stoddard, 1812[i]

The 2004 Louisiana Coastal Area proposal emphasized diverting freshwater and sediments into Breton Sound. So did Louisiana’s post-Katrina 2007 Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. So did the Corps of Engineers’ post-Katrina proposal. So did numerous unofficial proposals. At the two-year anniversary of the storm, other diversions south of the Caernarvon structure, actual and planned, directed freshwater into Breton sound.

The White’s Ditch siphon, not far from Caernarvon, diverted small amounts of freshwater into northern Breton Sound. The mainline levee ended at Bohemia, where the river was also free to sluice down the Bohemia spillway, but only when it ran high. Built in 1926, the spillway was non-operational by 2005. The Pointe a la Hache relief outlet ran from Bohemia south to the Ostrica Lock. Here, only the natural levee and a gravel road lay between the Mississippi and the marshes in southern Breton Sound. A young natural levee forest had taken root on the ridge. A flooded Mississippi could spill over the levee and wash into the adjacent marshes, or maybe it couldn’t. The gravel road may have impeded overbank flooding. Further south, near Point Pleasant, the Bohemia diversion structure and spillway could have diverted water into Breton Sound through Bayou Lamoque the same rate as Caernarvon, was inoperable, but was included in Louisiana’s 2007 plan for a sustainable coast. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, how much fresh water the overbank flooding introduced into southern Breton Sound had not been measured, nor had any changes in water quality caused by the flooding.

In 2001 the Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources began design work on a diversion at Fort St. Philip, on the east bank opposite Fort Jackson. The agencies planned to divert water from the river at the rate of 2,500 to 5,000 cubic feet per second into 2,252 acres of deteriorating wetlands and open water near the site of the old fort. The existing marshes graded from fresh at the toe of the ridge to saline. The site, short on development and infrastructure, presented a rare opportunity to rebuild marshes in shallow estuarine waters.

Engineers would cut a series of gaps in the bank of the river, armor them, creating channels that would carry river water and sediment to open water adjacent to the natural ridge of the river. Farther downstream they would create a diversion outfall channel, which would connect to Fort Bayou. Holes punched in the outfall channel would allow water and sediment to leak into the shallows between the bank and the bayou. The bayou would carry water and sediment to the east beyond the reach of the channel. The Corps and the DNR expected to create and 624 acres of marsh over the life of the project, recreate the progression of wetlands from natural levee to emergent marsh to mudflats, and reduce the loss of marsh in the rest of the site. The expected cost was $6.4 million. A final note: The Corps and the DNR suspected that the introduction of freshwater into marshes that were largely saline would disrupt existing oyster leases. And, the siltation the engineers hoped for might plugged oil and gas canals and disrupt access to the project area.

The coastal scientists and engineers who published the Comprehensive Recommendations Supporting the Use of the Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy to Sustain Coastal Louisiana in August 2007 recommended encouraging the Mississippi to wash over its banks, a rates totaling up to 100,000 cubic feet per second, over the twenty miles south of Bohemia. Doing so would rebuild its natural levee. It was a habitat that, in the twenty-first century at least, was unique to Louisiana, where all other ridges were under intense development. The process would offer scientists and engineers an opportunity to observe and understand how a river develops its natural levee.[ii] Photograph 2007

 

Bohemia Siphon along the Mississippi

 

Mississippi River Ridge: Small Siphon at Bohemia

Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana

James Buchanan Eads solved the problem of sandbars blocking the passes at the mouth of the Mississippi with jetties, which opened Southwest Pass to shipping, but as early as 1832 Major Benjamin Buisson, Chief Engineer of the State of Louisiana, proposed and the State Legislature approved dredging a canal to connect the River at Fort St. Philip to Breton Sound. The State sent the proposal to Congress, which ordered a survey in 1837. Major W.H Chase did the survey and presented the War Department with a plan for the canal at an estimated cost of ten million dollars, a price tag that was way beyond Congress’s reach for public improvements in 1837.

Mr. R. Montaigu, a civil engineer, revived the idea twenty years later, but it was not until 1871 that Congress ordered the Corps of Engineers to make surveys and plans for the canal. Major C.W. Howell drew up the plans and a board of army officers, that included Major Howell, made a report that favored the plan over Eads’ proposed jetties in 1873. The cost would be thirteen million dollars. General A.A. Humphreys, Chief of Engineers and Eads’ rival, approved the plan, but General J.G. Bernard dissented, saying the cost estimates for the canal were unreliable, the canal would not solve the problem, would not be finished until 1884, and at least one of the passes in the river should be improved. And, should South Pass be jettied, it would function like a canal.

In February 1874 Eads proposed delivering a channel twenty-eight feet deep and 350 feet wide at a cost of ten million dollars, and he offered to work for free until he had achieved a channel twenty feet deep when he would receive a million dollars and a million for every two feet until the channel reached twenty-eight feet. The rest, five million dollars, would go for maintenance.[iii]

Eads got the job and got the job done. His jetties and those that followed delivered sediment to very deep water, where it was useless for land building. Combine the jetties with the levees and the wetlands in the Barataria Basin to the west and Breton Sound to the east were starved for freshwater and sediment.

In the wake of Katrina the canal was back and Fort Philip, located south of the end of the mainline levee and already the site of a planned diversion, was the proposed site of a major diversion of freshwater and sediment to Breton and Chandeleur Sounds.

First, the diversion: In 1994 Ivor van Heerden proposed diverting Mississippi water and sediment to Breton and Chandeleur sounds through the Bohemia Wildlife Management Area near Fort Philip and creating a new delta. He reiterated the proposal in a 2003 paper and again in his 2006 book, The Storm. The diversion would be huge, 200,000 cubic feet per second, would create more than five thousand acres or eight square miles of wetlands every year, leading to 140 square miles of new land within twenty years. The Bird-foot Delta would be abandoned, though enough water would be left the river to maintain the shipping channel through Southwest Pass. Or, a new navigation channel would be dredged just north of Empire through Adams and Bastian Bays in the Barataria Basin to the Gulf of Mexico. A new lock and other control structures would have to be built to make it possible. The delta would evolve into a series of barrier islands, which would coalesce with the Breton and Chandeleur islands to the east and the Barataria Bay islands to the west, and create a continuous arc of islands from Grand Isle to the northeastern tip of the Chandeleur Islands, a speed bump to hurricane storm surges. The new wetlands would further reduce storm surges. New Orleans’ levees would be protected. Eventually, the new delta would extend across MRGO, leading to its closing, but after Katrina that was on Louisiana’s agenda anyway. The proposal followed van Heerden’s dictum: “Barrier islands protect the wetlands, the wetlands protect the levees, the levees protect the home.” Photograph, 2007

 


[i]      Stoddard, 159.

[ii]             Multiple Lines of Defense Assessment Team, “Comprehensive Recommendations Supporting the Use of the Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy to Sustain Coastal Louisiana,” Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, August 17, 2007, 71-72, http://www.saveourlake.org/pdfs/JL/LPBF%20-%20CRCL%20Final%20Draft%20MLODS%20report%208-17-07%20for%20release%20part1.pdf; Lane, Robert R., John W. Day, Jr., Burnell Thibodeaus, “Water Quality Analysis of a Freshwater Diversion at Caernarvon, Louisiana,” Estuaries, Vol. 22, No. 2A, June 1999, 329, http://estuariesandcoasts.org/cdrom/ESTU1999_22_2A_327_336.pdf; Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force, Delta Building Diversion North of Fort St. Philip (BS-10), October 2003, http://data.lacoast.gov/reports/gpfs/BS-10.pdf.

[iii]             Corthell, Elmer Lawrence, A History of the Jetties at the Mouth of the Mississippi River, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1881, 17-23; Barry, 68-71;