Thursday, June 30, 2011

Flood Shows Need for "Room for Rivers"

The surge of water that made its way down the central valley of the United States and came to be known as the 2011 Mississippi Flood has come and gone in Louisiana. For many, catastrophe was barely averted by a few precious feet of levees and sandbags. Others fared less well, especially with the opening of the New Madrid and Morganza Floodways, unleashing the river’s awesome power in areas that many had assumed were safe to farm and inhabit. Although there was a bit of resentment about these actions among the people who call these floodways home, they were undoubtedly the correct actions to take, given the alternative of possibly inundating hundreds of thousands of homes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and swamping countless other towns, industries, and the vital oil infrastructure that keeps our state and nation’s economy chugging along. It’s hard to comprehend the tremendous volume of water that was flowing down to the Gulf of Mexico this spring, as well as the damage that water could have wrought had it not been adequately contained and diverted. But before we congratulate ourselves on our mastery over nature, we should take a critical look at the way we deal with that mighty force we call the Mississippi River.

Before the 20th Century, the river was lined with a patchwork of regional levees, built to protect important towns and their surrounding farmlands. Between these levees were huge gaps that allowed the river to periodically flood large basins, much the same as it had done for geologic ages. All that changed after the devastating Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which swamped hundreds of thousands of acres and displaced more than a million people. With a new respect for the vital importance of this region to the welfare of the nation, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928, the largest public works program ever implemented up to that time. The responsibility for designing, implementing, and maintaining this project was given to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Their mission was straightforward: protect people and property from massive flooding. They went to work immediately, and before long had constructed an elaborate interstate system of levees, river control structures, and floodways that we now take for granted—but should praise to high heaven in years like this one. The Mississippi has been more or less contained for 83 years, with flooding being limited to regional areas or diverted into designated floodways and spillways. In that time span, however, our understanding of subjects like ecology and climatology has advanced, and our attitudes towards environmental engineering and the importance of conservation have changed, too.

We now realize how valuable open floodplain connectivity is to the rivers they cradle. Before the 20th Century, the Mississippi enjoyed millions of acres of rich, backwater floodplains. These basins, once covering millions of acres, were periodically flooded, bringing rich sediments and nutrients to a unique bottomland hardwood ecosystem that provides the majority of spawning grounds and rearing habitat for freshwater fish as well as well as food and nesting habitat for waterfowl. Today these open floodplains have been reduced to a tiny fraction of their former size, putting pressure on the species that rely on such ecosystems. Having less open floodplains also means that water has less places to go. During a flood event, the more open, undeveloped land to divert water, the better. Floodplains can also absorb and buffer the overabundance of nutrient pollution in the Mississippi, the root cause of our annual “dead zone.” Adopting a policy that encourages the expansion and conservation of open floodplains, rather than further development on them, can not only provide critical habitat for ducks and fish, but can give more wiggle room for officials trying to manage future floods.

We have also come to a greater appreciation for the river and its basins for providing important economic benefits other than transportation for commerce. According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the total economic value of boating, hunting, and fishing resources in our state totals $6.75 billion dollars. Providing habitat for wildlife will allow for unique and highly productive places for anglers, boaters, hunters, birdwatchers, and nature lovers to enjoy their hobbies, as well as providing economic opportunities for businesses to cater to those activities. Working with the people and businesses that thrive from these services, we can push our state and federal officials to adopt river management policies that allow for greater tourism, recreation, and environmental benefits that will ultimately strengthen and diversify our economy. In a state that prides itself on being the “Sportman’s Paradise,” Louisiana can and should take the lead in this effort.

The Mississippi Flood of 2011 was not without its share of damage and disruption. Several hundred homes and thousands of acres of farmland were covered in muddy water. These areas will almost certainly be in need of economic and environmental restoration. This provides a critical juncture for concerned citizens to raise the issues just mentioned, and more. In the 21st Century, the discussion of our nation’s flood plans should focus not so much on controlling rivers—after all, the lesson of the last few hurricanes should completely put to rest old ideas that humans can completely bend nature to their will—to one of ecological management. Benefits would include reducing risk of flooding to upstream communities, increasing commercial and recreational use related to wildlife productivity, and a pollution buffer for the lower Mississippi and the Gulf. As our nation faces increasing flooding threats from climate change, increasing land use, navigation structures, and other factors, we should start embracing a growth policy that allows "Room for Rivers" -- retreating from their floodplains rather than continuing to develop upon them.


If you are interested in learning more about how Sierra Club activists across the nation are tackling Mississippi River issues, go to You can get involved and be part of the team that is working to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, as well as fighting for a new "Room for Rivers" policy.

Also, our local Delta Chapter has its own water quality program, the Bayou Teche Water Sentinels, who monitor water quality at different spots on Bayou Teche. You can learn more about the Water Sentinels program by clicking here or by contacting Woody Martin at "".

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