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A Flooding Reprieve for 25,000 acres of Louisiana Farmland

A spillway on the Mississippi River, designed to prevent the river from overflowing its levees and inundating towns and cities in Louisiana, was set to be opened for only the third time in history this Sunday. But farmers with 25,000 acres of crops at stake won a last minute reprieve when the Army Corps of Engineers decided Thursday to hold off action for now.

NOLA.COM reported the Army Corps of Engineers delayed opening the Morganza Spillway above Baton Rouge “indefinitely in response to slightly better forecasts for water heights at the spillway and upriver.” But it said officials warned that future rainfall could still force the corps to operate the emergency structure during the next two months.

“Operation of the structure will be a consideration until the Mississippi River crests and begins to fall,” said a press release issued by the Corps. “The expected crest at Morganza is on about June 15th, but it will then remain high for two weeks or more.”

The Army Corps was set to open the spillway Sunday in response to historic rains and flooding, which swelled the Mississippi to dangerous levels and heightened the risk that the river could overflow its banks. To reduce that risk, the Corps had planned to open the Morganza Spillway, redirecting water away from populated areas. As with the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which protects New Orleans from flooding, the Morganza Spillway guides excess water away from Baton Rouge and other populated areas.

This year, record precipitation has contributed to flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and raised water levels all the way south into Louisiana. Farmers across the Midwest have had to delay planting due to soggy soil and heavy rains.

The opening of the Morganza Spillway would have expanded the number of agricultural acres lost to this year’s wet conditions. Nearly 25,000 acres of crops are planted across the Atchafalaya basin, said Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. Some farmers have already sunk as much as $300,000 into their crops.

Strain said the spillway opening would have meant a “total loss of their crops,” adding that the water could rise as high as seven feet and remain for two to three months. Plus, “you lose your infrastructure when the water is that high for that long,” he said.

The Morganza Spillway has only been opened twice, in 1973 and 2011. This latest opening was delayed twice to June 9, but officials had expected it to proceed on Sunday as planned—until the announcement Thursday.

Ricky Boyett, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the spillways, said that the Corps opens the spillways when the risks rise for more populated areas. “If [the spillway] overtops, we lose control and the ability to operate it if the water keeps rising,” he said.

The result of the river overtopping would be disastrous, said Strain. “If the Mississippi river leaves her banks with that much power and water it would be absolutely destructive and devastating,” he said. “So we have to control it.”

Although there are no homes in the flood plain, Boyett said some people have set up “encampments,” taking their chances that the twice-opened spillway wouldn’t be operated again anytime soon. Strain said those residents had been advised about the Spillway and potential coming flood.

Farmers aren’t the only producers whose harvest who could have faced losses. An influx of fresh water from the Mississippi into more brackish waters can also disrupt fisheries. The 2011 Morganza Spillway opening was a “nightmare” for crawfishers, said Jody Meche, president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association–West.

The opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway also has devastated the crabbing industry that operates in the Lake Ponchartrain basin, where that spillway sends its waters. Local crabbers report that decreasing salinity has reduced their normal crab haul from 30 boxes per week to just three or four.

The pace of opening the Mississippi’s spillways has picked up dramatically in recent years. The Bonnet Carré had only been opened eight times between its construction in 1937 and 1997. In the past 19 years, it has been opened six times, and was opened twice this year for the first time ever, first on February 27 for 44 days, and again on May 10. It remains open.

The waters have risen so high because of record precipitation and flooding upstream caused by saturated soils. But human actions have played a role too, at least in part.

“Sure, we may be getting more rain, but on our major rivers it is river constriction that is the problem,” says Bob Criss, professor emeritus of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “We’ve in effect made the rivers smaller by constricting them.”

Whether caused by weather events or river control, flooding upstream is directly connected to flooding downstream. “We have had so much rain in the Arkansas river valley, the Missouri river valley, and the entire Midwest area,” explains the Corps’ Boyett. “All that water is coming through us.

“Ultimately, we had to pass the water that you saw flooding in Missouri and Nebraska earlier this year. And we’re going to have to pass the water that you’re seeing in Arkansas and Oklahoma now.”

Asked how farmers could prepare for any eventual flooding, Kyle McCann, the Louisiana Farm Bureau’s assistant to the president, said: “Best thing you can do is get everything out that you need, take care of those type of arrangements, and sit back and pray.”

Reporting for this story was made possible, in part, by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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