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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Remaking the Mississippi--Engineering Marvel or Monster?

Air Date: Week of

Following the great flood of 1927, the U.S. government took on one of the mostly expensive projects in American history: engineering the Mississippi River to avoid floods and facilitate shipping. John Barry, author of the book Rising Tide, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America, tells host Bruce Gellerman about the successes and consequences of that endeavor.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Every school kid learns to spell the name of the world’s 3rd largest river - it’s M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. But while we call it the Mississippi River today, it’s really the Mississippi River System.
The flow of the nation’s mightiest waterway is controlled by a massive complex of engineered features, designed to keep river traffic flowing and divert flooding waters. The Army Corps of Engineers began building the modern system over 80 years ago but in recent weeks, snowmelts and rains of biblical proportions have tested it as never before.

In his book "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America," John Barry recounts the events that led to this attempt to control nature.

BARRY: It started raining in August 1926 and basically it didn't stop. Cairo, Illinois broke flood stage on New Year’s Day, 1927, and stayed above flood stage for 153 consecutive days.

The Mississippi overtops its banks and floods nearby farmland. (Photo: © 2011 Gary Braasch)

GELLERMAN: And the destruction was enormous.

BARRY: It was. I mean, there were ten separate flood crests that went down the river that year. You had a true inland sea - at its widest, the river was over 100 miles wide.

GELLERMAN: So Congress passes the flood control act of, what, 1928?

BARRY: That’s correct, yeah.

GELLERMAN: Coolidge signs it, but I guess, he was - he almost forgets to sign it. He was going off on vacation and only signs the bill, you know, by himself - no crowds, no reporters, no nothing.

BARRY: Well Coolidge was a very strange cat. His son died and after that, Coolidge was just detached from everything. Despite pleas from Republicans and Democrats, Coolidge never visited any of the flooded area. He wouldn’t even sign a photograph of himself to auction off at a fundraiser for victims.

You know, the flood had an enormous political impact on the U.S. because when the country saw these hundreds of thousands of people just utterly devastated, there was this huge shift in opinion. And people felt the federal government should indeed do something.

Near Memphis the Mississippi flooded an area of farmland 6 miles wide. (Photo: © 2011 Gary Braasch)

GELLERMAN: So Congress passes the flood control act of 1928, and it’s 300 million dollars - that was an enormous amount of money.

BARRY: An absolutely enormous amount at that time. The only thing more expensive than that was fighting World War I…that the government had ever done. Up until that time, people did not think the federal government had any role in lives of an individual citizen and barely any role in states.

GELLERMAN: So they proceed to build this huge system of locks, dams, levees, spillways, floodways - and it works, pretty much, right?

BARRY: It works very well. And I might point out: these are, the levees themselves, are by a wide margin the strongest levees in the United States.

GELLERMAN: But even then, the Mississippi is not going where it really wants to go naturally.

BARRY: That’s true. The Atchafalaya River is a shorter route to the sea that starts above Baton Rouge - it’s where what is called the Old River Control Structure was built. That was completed in 1954, and it was completed because if the river was left to its own devices, it would go down Atchafalaya and it would leave Baton Rouge and New Orleans. And to prevent that from happening, they built this control structure.

Because of sediment build up on the Mississippi River, the Atchafalaya is a shorter, steeper, route to the Gulf of Mexico. (Mississippi/Atchafalaya Project at Penn State University)

GELLERMAN: They call the engineering of the levees and the dams and the dykes and the spillways and floodways - they call that ‘putting the river,’ the Mississippi River, ‘into a straight jacket.’

BARRY: Well, yes and no. I mean, as a friend of mine says, the river is not a tame tiger - it’s a caged tiger. Before this flood is over, I would expect to see roughly 6,000 square miles under water. That is a lot of land.

GELLERMAN: But here you have this slow-moving wall of water coming from upriver like a pig moving through a python.

BARRY: That’s not a bad analogy, yeah.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, well, with all of this water coming down, and all this silt, is that doing a good thing, or in the long run, a bad thing?

BARRY: As I’m sure you are aware, Louisiana has been losing coastal lands. We’ve lost 2,300 square miles - most of it in the last 50 or 60 years.

GELLERMAN: That’s just washing into the Gulf of Mexico.

BARRY: That’s correct. And the reason is, we have tamed the river in such a way that it no longer feeds that sediment to that land. Big floods like this carry an enormous amount of sediment, and unfortunately, we did not have a plan in place to maximize the use of this sediment.

GELLERMAN: So what would you do with all this sediment?

The Morganza spillway was designed to divert water from the Mississippi River during major flood events. It has only been used twice, in 1973 and 2011. (NASA)

BARRY: Well for one thing, there has been talk about building more diversions to allow river water into the marshland to rebuild them. That talk’s been going on for years. One of the biggest issues is going to be the shipping industry. One of the proposals, which is in the state’s master plan, is basically to create a new mouth of the Mississippi River that would allow the river to drop some sediment in areas much closer to population centers.

However, the shipping industry is concerned, because as yet, the engineering of how ships are going to get through that area has not been fully completed. New Orleans exists because of the shipping industry. You know, Pittsburgh is a port with direct access to the ocean because of New Orleans. So is Tulsa. You know, 60 percent of the grain exports from the Midwest go through New Orleans. So it’s not only a New Orleans issue - it’s a national issue.

GELLERMAN: Re-engineering the mouth of the Mississippi, though, sounds very expensive.

BARRY: It’s not cheap, no. (Laughs). None of this is cheap.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Barry, thank you, I really appreciate it.

BARRY: Glad to be on, and a great pleasure talking to you.
GELLERMAN: John Barry is author of "Rising Tide.”



For more photos of the flooding Mississippi

What We've Done to the Mississippi River: An Explainer


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