After Levee Blast, More Rough Water Ahead

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In the middle of the night on Tuesday, in a hotly contested move, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blasted open a two-mile long hole in a levee along the Mississippi River, sending the rain-swollen waterway gushing over 100,000 acres of Missouri farmland. The flooded area – sparsely populated but fertile farmland – has long been earmarked by the government as a flood basin for seasons of unrelenting rainfall like these, and the plan to blow open the levee to ease the river’s high levels that were threatening river towns like Cairo, Illinois, appears to have worked. (So it seems. For now.)

That doesn’t mean that the Missouri farmers are happy about it. On Tuesday, 25 farmers who have at least temporarily lost their land under 200 square miles of sandy brown water sued the government for confiscating their land without proper compensation. Farmers whose crops and homes are insured for natural disasters are worried that insurance companies won’t pay up because the blast was a man-made event. Last week Missouri’s attorney general tried to stop the action on these grounds without success. Yesterday, the Department of Agriculture assured insured farmers that their claims to damage would be assessed as resulting from a natural event – the flooding of the Mississippi – not a man-made one.

(See pictures of the Army Corps blowing up the levee.)

This week’s events are unlikely to be the lone drama that the mighty Mississippi will deliver this month. Further south, the river is expected to reach its highest levels since the 1920s, putting levees along the river and its many tributaries under what’s expected to be an extended period of duress. Communities in Mississippi and Louisiana are bracing themselves for loss of business and possible evacuation. As Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour very colorfully told the AP: “We anticipate that all of the river casinos will close at some point as the pig goes down the python.”

Between now and the end of May, towns in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana are all on watch for river levels that forecasters say could break records or be on par with that devastating flood. Though experts are confident the government-built levees along the Mississippi are secure, as that river fills up, and the many large tributaries that normally empty into it begin to swell, there is concern that the non-federally managed levees may not fare as well.

Still, the Corps’ job is far from over. In addition to two smaller holes they will blast in coming days on the levee near Cairo to facilitate the flow of water back into the river, the government body has said that it may make use of levee openings further downriver (that have gates won’t need to be blasted) to manage the high water levels. The complex task casts a rare light onto the even more complex and controversial Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, an undertaking to manage the enormous river that drains 41% of the land in the continental U.S. – including some of Canada. (Only the Congo and Amazon have bigger watersheds.) The government started looking at managing the flood-prone river as early as the mid-1800s, but it wasn’t until a devastating flood in 1928 killed some 200 people and displaced 200,000 that the priority became law, and the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project was born.

But preparing for the worst in flood years like this one is not just a matter of managing levees, and serious questions have been raised over the long-term impacts of the manipulation of water and land that goes into keeping people safe and businesses ticking along. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who expects the slow-moving crest to reach his state by mid May, has also said that he is looking at emergency dredging in the lower Mississippi as sediment from the floods builds up and fills in navigation routes. Private and government dredges, including the Corps’, are regularly used to maintain the busy part of the river. Environmental groups blame this shoaling and the extensive federal levee system along the Mississippi for the slow destruction of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, by stopping the spread of nutrient rich sediment and ushering destructive salt water into freshwater marshes. The steady degradation of marshland has had a irreversible impact on wildlife in the region and played a part in the disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina.

As my colleague Michael Grunwald wrote in November while looking back at Katrina:

Hurricanes gain strength over water and lose force over land. Scientists believe every mile of marsh can lower a storm surge by as much as a foot. But the coastal scientists and environmentalists who warn that Louisiana is still losing a football field’s worth of land every half hour somehow seem like background noise. The Army Corps is still spending billions on new engineering and next to nothing on restoration. President Obama finally proposed $19 million worth of projects last year, but Congress hasn’t funded them. Not that they would have fixed the problem: cost estimates for a serious restoration effort run as high as $80 billion.

Two class action suits against contractors who had dredged parts of the Mississippi, thereby destroying storm barriers, made it all the way to a federal appeals court, which ruled that they had “government-contractor immunity” and could not be held liable for the damages sustained during the 2005 storm. (Watch TIME’s video “Reckoning with a Man-Made Disaster.”)

One can appreciate how mitigating the broader, far-reaching impacts of flood prevention get lost in weeks like these: in which tiny, impoverished communities like Cairo face ruin, and thousands of people downstream of a force like the Mississippi await whatever nature will deal to them. In situations like these, well-meaning government agencies and politicians will and should do whatever they can to protect the local populations and economies from what could be shaping up to be a record flood year. Few would argue that’s the problem, though the farmers of Missouri might argue that things could have been done differently. The larger problem seems to be what’s being done the rest of the year – or rather what’s not being done the rest of the year – when state of emergencies are not being declared, and the difficult and perhaps thankless task of keeping an eye on the rough water ahead is put aside for another day, and then another.