Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Wapappello Emergency Spillway

     John Barry’s 2005 book, Rising Tide, is required reading material to those curious about the engineering behind the operation of the Mississippi River system and the great flood of 1927 that caused today’s flood control systems to be engineered and constructed. 

Mississippi River Levee
     The Mississippi River watershed is the third largest watershed in the world.  As was the case in 1927, increased volumes of water from the Spring snow melt have reached the river system at the same time unprecedented amounts of rainfall have fallen on the country’s mid-section.  The 1927 flood resulted in 1 million Americans (almost 1% of the entire U.S. population at the time) being displaced.  Thousands died and over 250,000 lived in refugee camps for months.  The Red Cross reported feeding as many as 700,000 people for weeks during the 1927 event. 

     The great flood of 1927 was partially caused by the ‘levees-only’ policy the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers enacted in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The levees were constructed so that the rich soil of the Mississippi and Arkansas delta could be cultivated and farmed.  The farmland created immense wealth for southern plantation owners.  However, the levees contained the rising river in a constricted area causing its velocity to increase and its power to become uncontrollable.  The resulting disaster caused Congress to pass new legislation in 1928 calling for a better plan ‘to operate the river’.  What we are seeing on the news today is the culmination of decades of engineering and construction along the river system. 

Bathhouse at KC's campground
     This year’s rains caused major flooding in the heartland, and in Poplar Bluff where SSE is headquartered, things were particularly bad.  Over 22 inches of rain fell in 5 days.  A levee in Poplar Bluff broke and hundreds of homes were evacuated.  Also, Wappapello Lake reached a record 400 feet and water poured over the emergency spillway washing out roads and making things even worse downstream.

     Stan’s hometown of Doniphan is on the Current River which was at historic flood levels.  His home is on high ground, however his outfitting company, KC’s on the Current was flooded, and many business were left underwater including Stan’s father –in- laws’ retail store. 

Table Rock Lake Spillway
     In the Missouri Bootheel, the Mississippi River was about to breach the floodwalls and the USACE had to blow a levee and flood over 130,000 acres of farmland in order to protect homes and business downstream.  Things were no better over in Branson along the White River watershed.  They had even more rain, and all the lakes and streams were overflowing.  Table Rock Dam had its’ spillway almost at max capacity and Lake Taneycomo was completely over its’ banks which left Bass Pro and the Branson Landing underwater. 

The Landing in Branson
     Fortunately, despite all the rain the Flood control protections worked!  The White River is dammed in several places; Beaver Dam, Table Rock Dam, Power Site Dam, and Bull Shoals Dam.  Beaver Dam had its’ spillway completely open, which put enormous pressure on Table Rock resulting in another open spillway which left  Lake Taneycomo at full capacity as it poured into Bull Shoals Lake.  Bull Shoals remains full and is backed all the way up to the Power Site Dam and basically, both lakes have become one.  The USACE has tried to release only as much as they absolutely have to because all this water runs into the Mississippi River and could have a negative effect on those downstream.

     As General Walsh made announcements on the Corps’ plan to ‘operate’ the river system as it was designed, thousands and thousands of innocent property owners have been affected.  The operation (blasting of the levees) of the Birds Point system near New Madrid, Missouri did cause tremendous loss of property in Missouri’s fertile delta farmland but they were trying to limit the catastrophic losses in other locations along the river. 

Bonnet Carre spillway
     Farmers in southeast Missouri have suffered serious losses as have the oyster fisherman in Lake Pontchartrain.  The Corps’ decision to open the Bonnet Carre spillway for just the 8th time inundated the lake’s brackish water with millions of gallons of freshwater per day, causing the oysters to either perish or leave the area.  Finally, the operation of the Old River spillway in Morganza, Louisiana for just the second time protected the important cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans but it displaced about 25,000 people in rural Louisiana.

     Seeing loss of life being minimized during this catastrophe should make us all appreciate what those early engineers accomplished without the technology we have today.  It is impressive that they were able to envisioned and build flood control projects such as Clearwater, Wapappello, Table Rock, Beaver, and Bull Shoals Dams along with the thousands of miles of  levees with sometimes nothing more than teams of mules and shear manpower.  Thankfully, their hard work and planning minimized the damage and loss of life the Great Flood of 2011 could have caused.

     The lakes will remain at high water levels this summer as the USACE slowly releases the spring rainwater.  The process of assessing the damage has begun.  There will be repairs to roads, levees, and bridges as well as houses fixed, up and some torn down.  Slowly life is getting back to normal but things could have been much worse.  People worked together and helped each other out and communities all along the Mississippi River are stronger today than they were before the spring rains washed so many dreams away.  

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