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What the historic floods of 2019 show about the folly of engineering U.S. rivers

Great recent reads on disrupted river transport nationwide, a long history of trying to make the Mississippi behave, and the ongoing crisis in getting barges through New Orleans.

Arkansas River
A neighborhood in Fort Smith, Arkansas, engulfed in the floodwaters of the Arkansas River on May 30.
REUTERS/Drone Base

Topical diversity is usually the aim in these periodic roundups of great recent reads on environmental subjects. Not today. As the summer solstice closes out — astronomically if not hydrologically — an extraordinarily wet spring, the enormity of flooding across so much of the United States commends a single focus: how we try to engineer rivers in this country, and how thoroughly we fail.

Consider an assessment from the New York Times’ Mitch Smith in his “Paralysis on America’s Rivers: There’s Too Much Water.” Taking together the high-water records set this year, the flooded warehouses and submerged docks, the overtopped levees and stranded shipments in stacked-up barges, he concludes that “never has so much of the river system been closed for so long at such an important time of year.”

Across the country’s flood-battered midsection, the farms, towns and homes consumed by the bloated waters have drawn much of the attention. But flooding has had another, less intuitive effect — crippling the nation’s essential river commerce … [by rendering] river transportation impossible in much of the United States.

The Arkansas River has been closed to commercial traffic. So has the Illinois River, a key connection to Chicago and the Great Lakes. And so has part of the Mississippi River near St. Louis, where it crested on [June 9] at its second-highest point on record, cutting off the river’s northern section from shippers to the south.

As a result, farmers already grappling with flooded fields and worries about the trade war with China have struggled to obtain fertilizer for their crops. Customers have seen their deliveries of construction materials and road salt get stuck midway to their destinations. And shippers have made drastic cuts to their operations with work at a standstill.

Farmers are also struggling with decisions about what, when and even whether to plant as they weigh possible recovery strategies without benefit of reliable flood forecasts. Looking backward, however, they find it easier to fix blame.

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The Times’s Manny Fernandez and John Schwartz attended a public meeting in Oklahoma with a district-level manager for the Army Corps of Engineers (and the Secret Service protection detail he brought along) to answer complaints that the agency has mismanaged its flood-control infrastructure for the benefit of some interests and the detriment of theirs. Not a new contention, of course:

The issue of whether the Corps is sufficiently prioritizing flood control was front and center last year when a federal judge in Washington handed the agency one of its most significant courtroom defeats in years, in a lawsuit brought by hundreds of farmers, landowners and businesses along the Missouri River in Iowa, Missouri and other Midwest states.

The judge found that a series of changes the Corps had made in the management of the Missouri River worsened flooding during more than 100 flood events from 2007 to 2014. The agency’s changes were made to benefit endangered birds and fish — including a small black-crowned bird known as the interior least tern — and “led to greater flooding” for many of the property owners, the judge concluded….

The case is now in its second phase as Judge Nancy B. Firestone of the United States Court of Federal Claims determines how much compensation to award flood victims on the Missouri River. Lawyers for the farmers said the federal government could be facing a flood damages payout of more than $340 million.

Now — imagine multiplying that kind of sum across all the river systems where, this year, the routine effects of the Corps’ management decisions are magnified by the country’s wettest 12 months on record.

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You would expect great coverage of Mississippi River issues from the New Orleans press, and a five-story package from the Times-Picayune’s Tristan Baurick impressed me all the more for focusing on points upstream of his circulation area, from Minnesota to Missouri, in documenting “The River’s Revenge.”

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Equal parts policy analysis, travelogue and history lesson, Baurick’s project examines generations of effort, sometimes on the scale of warfare, to tame and confine a river that has “slowly, and devastatingly, exacted its revenge on those who dared try to control it.” First stop is Itasca State Park:

America’s greatest river begins here, in the still waters of a lake cradled in the dark woods of Minnesota. If left to its own devices, it would be a wild place, where a pristine lake turns into a free-running river. But even at its very first inch, where Lake Itasca’s edge tips into a narrow stream, people have altered the Mississippi, making it conform to a practical, human purpose.

That reference may seem improbable, but Baurick’s sources tell him that the first modification of the Mississippi’s course was made here, in the form of a dam that channeled consolidated multiple rivulets into a more impressive single stream, the better to attract tourists. “The dam looks natural because they covered it with rocks,” park manager Bob Chance explains.

The story picks up speed in Minneapolis and St. Paul, with an account of how the river powered the growth of two great cities, one founded on milling and the other on steamboat shipping. This opened the era of continual, commerce-focused engineering programs to maintain river shipping’s advantages over railroads, first, and then trucking, with highly mixed results.

By the time U.S. troops were deployed in World War I, Baurick writes, steamboat traffic between St. Paul and St. Louis had essentially ceased. Soon afterward the real reshaping of the river began:

The 29 lock and dam structures built during the 1930s and 1940s reinvented the Upper Mississippi, turning its gentle slope into a stairway. Each step between dams contained a long and gentle pool. Waterborne commerce came back big and has continued to grow. In 1940, about 30 million tons of cargo traveled the Mississippi. In recent years, that number has surged higher than 400 million tons.

(Of which many millions are parked right now, waiting for the return of safely navigable levels in those pools.)

In Genoa, Wisconsin, Baurick surveys the destructive patterns set in motion by Lock and Dam 8, whose distortion of wind and wave patterns has wiped away islands, dammed channels with sediment, killed off fish and upended aquatic plant communities. Efforts continue, mostly via the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, to mitigate these problems, but progress is slow and impermanent; now the shoreline forests are dying and a refuge manager says candidly, “We don’t know what to do.”

Navigation problems are simpler to solve — dredge more river bottom! But that in  turn creates a storage problem, which Baurick introduces in the form of a “1.5-million-ton pile of sand in Wisconsin that should be in Louisiana.”

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This heap is near the town of Crater Island, one of two dozen places along the Mississippi where the Corps parks the products of a dredging effort that keeps growing, even as the protective Birds Foot Delta beyond New Orleans keeps shrinking, thanks to a 50 percent reduction in natural sediment deposits delivered by the river. That’s a consequence of water held back not only by the Corps’ 29 dams on the Mississippi’s main course, but 40,000 others across its watershed.

Meanwhile, New Orleans is mining sand out of the Gulf, and looking for other sources to use in rebuilding barrier islands, an ongoing effort that has cost more than $800 million since 1998 and is never, ever done. But shipping the Wisconsin sandpile south, the Corps says, is too expensive.

At Hannibal, Missouri, we encounter the remarkable situation of the Sny Island Levee Drainage District, which is speeding water downstream with a series of levees built rapidly, and often illegally, after the big floods of 1993. Indeed, along the district’s 200-mile stretch of river, about 40 percent of the levees exceed federally permissible heights.

Though the downstream havoc is clear, the remedy is not: All the feds have been able to do so far is declare the district ineligible for federal aid, which the locals say they don’t need anyway.

A final stop presents the contrasting example of Davenport, Iowa, which seems to be one of the few cities along the river to get serious about living with floods instead of trying to route the water downstream or abandon the widening flood plain for higher ground:

During flooding, elevated sidewalks link up with removable steel bridges and ramps to the [municipal baseball] stadium. Parking is tight when much of it is under water, so the River Bandits enlist a shuttle to bring fans from lots on higher ground.

Since the 1980s, Davenport has put limits on development along the river. As buildings have adapted to flooding, like the stadium, or been torn down or relocated, the city’s riverfront has gone green. A nine-mile stretch is dominated by nearly 560 acres of parks and trails, much of which can hold or absorb flood water.

On the city’s south edge is the 513-acre Nahant Marsh, one of the Mississippi’s largest urban wetlands. The site of a gun club for nearly 30 years, the marsh underwent an extensive clean up that removed 243 tons of lead shot and heaps of trash. Now the marsh hosts a variety of birds and other wildlife and an education center that draws thousands of visitors each year.

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That’s the end of Baurick’s journey but not ours; we pick up the story in Louisiana courtesy of Henry Grabar and his alarming field report for Slate, “Hell Is High Water: When will the Mississippi come for New Orleans?

Just after the city broke its duration record for high-water events — reaching 226 consecutive days on June 8 — Grabar hung out with towboat pilots and dispatchers struggling to keep huge barge  tows and tankers more or less on course as high, wide, fast water carry them through some of the city’s densest neighborhoods. Some liken it to driving a truck downhill on ice.

In New Orleans, the Mississippi River is considered to be at “high water” when it runs through the city at more than 8 feet above sea level. Usually, high water comes in the winter or spring and ends by June. This season, the river rose in November and hasn’t come down. “The length of time it’s gone on is really, really taxing my guys,” said Michael Bopp, the president of the Port Pilots Association. As a pilot, he said, “if you’re not scared, you’re oblivious. Oil, toxic chemicals, acid—you go right by people’s houses with the most toxic stuff known to man. You have a huge responsibility, and especially right now. The velocity and the length of time it’s been high is extraordinarily unusual. We are dying for it to go down.”

This crisis is directly traceable to eight decades of investment in levees that have raised the river above street level, eye level, roof level as it moves through New Orleans, but also to climate shifts that will become only more normal with time. And there’s a growing possibility that things could get much worse in the long term, or perhaps much sooner.

One of the most unnerving aspects of this year’s record high water is that it now coincides with the start of hurricane season. The Army Corps’ river levees are built with the assumption that tropical storms would coincide with a river only 8 feet high—less than half its present height. Hurricane Katrina pushed a surge of 13 feet up the river. Hurricane Isaac made the river run backward, with a surge of 8 feet up to Baton Rouge. A storm surge of that size right now would cause the Mississippi to overtop the levees in New Orleans, a catastrophe in its own right that would weaken the barriers below, threatening worse.

For now, that is an unlikely event that should not keep the 1.275 million people in Greater New Orleans up at night. Big hurricanes don’t typically arrive in the gulf until late August and September. A storm would have to hit the river mouth just so to cause a major river surge. But as the years go by, it is looking more likely that high water and a hurricane could coincide—and in turn, it becomes more important to rethink the logic of the system that sends so much water through New Orleans into the hot summer months.