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The Political Side of Spring Flooding

June 7, 2011Joanne RichardsonUncategorizedComments Off on The Political Side of Spring Flooding

Guest Blog Entry by Alex Guerrieri

The recent work by the US Army Corps of Engineers to relieve some of the flooding on the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois brings up several interesting topics for debate, including the priorities of the Corps, the long-term effects of flooding on an agricultural area, and the political quagmire that can occur when two distinct municipalities — in this case Illinois and Missouri — have vastly different ideas on the proper methodology of flood control.

In case you weren’t aware yet, on Monday (May 2), the US Army Corps intentionally detonated a section of river levee along the Missouri shore, activating the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway in an effort to limit the effects of flooding on Cairo, Ill., which is located across the river. An explosive slurry was piped into the levee and detonated Monday evening, allowing nearly 550,000 cubic-feet per second of Mississippi and Ohio River floodwaters to drain into the floodway.

The Birds Point New Madrid Floodway, designed by the Corps specifically for this purpose, was originally built after the disastrous 1927 flood. However, even with such a significant volume of water being diverted from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, “Corps hydrologists estimate it will take 45-60 days for water to recede from the floodway . . . and another 21-30 days for the land to dry out.” (US Army Corps of Engineers)

See a map of the area: (Google Maps)

This link shows two images courtesy of NASA, the first from April 29th and the second from May 3rd, a day after the levee was destroyed: (Southeast Missourian)

The topic of politics arises due to the fact that the floodwaters are being directed on to agricultural land in Missouri, in order to spare commercial and residential land in Illinois. The Missouri Legislature even went so far as to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the demolition, but were denied.

For the farmers whose croplands are now underwater, this means the loss of millions of dollars: lost seed, lost planting time, and in many cases, lost topsoil. According to Rick Cruse, a professor of agronomy professor at Iowa State University and director of the university’s Iowa Water Center, those with land near the levees will find that topsoil has been washed away, while those farther away will have to deal with debris that has washed onto their land. Additionally, “pollutants and chemicals in the water is another concern, but that threat is largely eased by the sheer volume of water that diluted those substances.”

Given these circumstances — a record amount of rainfall (portions of the Ohio River have seen more than 25 inches of rain in the month of April alone), a river system that has no concern for state boundaries or any law besides gravity, and the potential for significant flooding of Cairo, IL — is there a better choice of action that the Corps could have taken? How does the Corps determine its priorities in regard to flood control? Should loss of livelihood trump potential loss of life, even though most of Cairo’s 2800 residents had already been evacuated before the levee was detonated? What do you think?

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