What Can We Learn From the Mississippi River Flooding?

When the US Army Corps of Engineers blew the levee at Birds Point and the New Madrid Floodway, it sparked a heated debate. We can ask whether this particular by-pass was a idea or not, but that decision was made 80 years ago, right or wrong. One thing is for sure in a changing climate — the past is no longer a good predictor of what will come in the future.

The report “The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project: Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway” provides an intriguing history of the Birds Point Levee and the New Madrid Floodway. It has been 74 years since the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway by-pass has been used. This is a long time compared to other by-passes like the Yolo by-pass at Sacramento that is used every few years and ensures that awareness of flood risk is higher.

While these cases are different in the way they have been managed, they share one thing in common which is conflict. History has shown us that when we manipulate natural river systems, conflict arises.

A river naturally wants to spread out. If it can’t, it will go higher and build more energy and move faster downstream – often being pushed onto some other community. This bypass on the Mississippi hasn’t been use for three quarters of a century. While we may find that some land right at breach may be damaged by sand and silt deposition and that farmers there may lose a crop this year, the land is not destroyed.

We agree that forethought is critical in moving forward. Changes and adjustments in the plan will likely be needed. This will take cooperation among agencies and the private sector to be sure we have the right mix of changes to policies and practices. What will be best for taxpayers and the environment are policies and practices that allow more room for the river and incentives to do so.