Flood the farms to save the cities.
That’s the trade-off staring at the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana this week as a historically high Mississippi River rolls south, flooding towns in Mississippi on Wednesday, prompting evacuations farther south, and threatening the heavily industrialized petrochemical corridor running from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and beyond.
So the Corps is confronted with an unpalatable choice: cause a flood that would drown the livelihoods of central Louisiana farmers and fisherman, or let the high river roll and frantically sandbag 200 miles of levees to prevent flooding in the state’s two biggest cities.
If the swollen Mississippi is allowed to run full bore through the state, the water would eat away at levees and could overtop sections, drowning some districts of New Orleans under about 25 feet of dirty water - an inundation even greater than the Katrina disaster, according to a worst-case map prepared by Walter Baumy, chief of engineering for the Corps’ New Orleans office.
But the Corps has an ace up its sleeve. It can throw open a relief valve 35 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, the huge Morganza Spillway.
Designed to siphon a fifth of the Mississippi’s mightiest flow and sluice it west, the spillway has been opened just once in the 57 years since its completion, during the flood of 1973.
If thrown open again, the Mississippi would fall, as would the threat to Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
In exchange, a flood would shoot down the gut of central Louisiana and join the already high Atchafalaya River, which would further swell and flood. For 200 miles, farmers and fishermen would pay a steep price as a torrent greater than Niagara Falls would inundate crops, crawfish hatcheries and, possibly, the small cities of Houma and Morgan City. Sensitive oyster beds in the Gulf of Mexico would be imperiled by the pulse of freshwater.
On Wednesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told residents in the path of the potential spillway flood to prepare for evacuation.
"These are very high stakes," said Bob Thomas, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans who studies the politics and ecology of the spillway. "The Morganza will cause a lot of damage if it’s open, a major flood. But it’s designed for that."
The Mississippi has flooded 3 million acres in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi and has forced thousands from their homes. On Wednesday, the river set an all-time record at Natchez, Miss. Heavy snows in the upper Midwest this winter and record rains in April across the Ohio River valley triggered the historic floods.
In Louisiana, the Morganza Spillway decision rests with Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, which oversees the river’s flood control system.
"The river is dictating what we need to do to protect the largest number of lives," said Robert Anderson, Walsh’s spokesman.
On May 6, the head of the Corps’ New Orleans district, Col. Edward Fleming, requested that Walsh open the spillway to protect the city.
Walsh is considering the request while keeping a close eye on river forecasts. He will make his decision between Thursday and Saturday, his spokesman said.
Forecasts suggest that Walsh will be forced to open at least some of the 125 gates that march across the 3,900 foot-wide spillway.
By Wednesday, the river had risen to just three feet below the spillway’s top, said Baumy, the Corps engineer. And the National Weather Service projects the river’s flow will hit a preplanned trigger point early Friday. That’s when the service says the Mississippi will shoot past a spot called Red River Landing, just north of Morganza, at 1.5 million cubic feet per second.
For more than 50 years, the Corps’ flood protection plan for Louisiana called for throwing open Morganza’s gates when the river hit that unlikely number. The whole river has been channeled as a superhighway for barges, with only two pressure relief points along the lower part - at Morganza and the already opened Bonnet Carre Spillway just north of New Orleans. Such a constraint leaves the Corps with few options during a historic flood.