Is Mississippi River reaching higher levels, more often?

Published 12:06am Sunday, June 5, 2011

By Taylor Aswell & Hannah Mask

NATCHEZ — The waters of the Great Flood of 2011 are receding, and it appears the Miss-Lou is again safe from Mississippi River flooding, but for how long?

The river at Natchez has reached three of its top 12 highest levels ever in the last four years and has crested at or above flood stage 29 times since 1970. The river only crested at or above flood stage 17 times from 1903 to 1969.

NASA satellite images show the difference between the Mississippi River in 2010, at right, when it was not flooding, and the river on May 15, 2011, at left, when it was approaching the highest crest ever recorded in Natchez.

The 2011 crest at Natchez — 61.9 — is the highest ever.

The river is reaching higher levels more often, and it’s a reality local residents can’t ignore, Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland acknowledged.

“I think this is an issue we are going to have to address,” he said. “We are going to have to get the (U.S.) Corps of (Engineers) and Congress to look at this and see if there is anything that can be done.”

But the problem is one no one should be surprised about, experts said, and there is no easy solution.

The levees

The very things that protected Vidalia and thousands of other river residents up and down the Mississippi last month — levees — are part of the problem, according to Karen O’Neill, associate professor in the human ecology department at Rutgers University and author of a book focused on flood control, “Rivers by Design.”

“The question is always ‘Where can the water go?’” O’Neill said.

If levees force rising waters into a smaller area, she said, the water rises only within that area.

“At some point, it’s just a question of volume,” O’Neill said. “Levees closer to the river give the river less room to spread at flood time.”

Historically, she said, people built their houses on relatively higher land and planted crops in the low areas, taking the risk that those areas would be flooded at times whether they were protected by the levee or not.

Now, though, as the design of levees becomes more advanced, O’Neill said, there’s a temptation to build them closer to the river to protect farmlands.

“Private individuals and county and state government cut off some of the historic natural outlets, (as well),” she said. “The floodways that have been built since then do not replace the functions of these outlets.”

Franklin Heitmuller, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Geology at the University of Southern Mississippi said, too, that levees are part of the problem.

“The bad comes with the good,” he said.

“Flood-control levees are absolutely critical in this day and time to protect lives, communities and properties,” he said. “If (the levees) were absent — or poorly built — we would have a big mess on our hands.”

However, Heitmuller said, unintended problems arise.

“At locations where flood-control levees reduce the area (for floodwater), the floodplain can build up more rapidly than would otherwise be expected if floodwaters and sediment were distributed across a larger area,” he said.

Continued development

O’Neill said another problem created in recent years is the amount of infrastructure that’s been built.

“We’ve effectively converted rainfall into a social problem,” she said.

The addition of concrete covers — parking lots, shopping centers, houses and more — on previously porous open ground means rainfall can’t drain where it used to.

“We didn’t like muddy streets in the 19th century, so we eventually built storm drainage systems,” O’Neill said.

The problem with the drainage systems, O’Neill said, is they rush rainwater to rivers and seas instead of allowing it to become groundwater, as it would have in the past.

But it’s not just infrastructure that brings up issues with drainage.

“Most lawns are actually impervious to rainwater, because the ground is too compacted,” O’Neill said. “So suburbanization, as well as dense urban building, yields storm water problems.”

Varying weather systems can cause periodic flooding, she said, despite infrastructure. On the other hand, disastrous flooding happens because humans are in the way, but it’s difficult for engineers to estimate just how in the way humans are, she said.

“Somewhat simplistically, the river levees have provided exceptionally good protection against small- and medium-sized floods since the federal government first got involved,” O’Neill said. “But in keeping ever-increasing water volume inside the levees, we run the risk of catastrophic failure.”

Heitmuller, though, said he’s not convinced urban infrastructure — along with the associated pavement and reduction of seepage — is much of a factor for floods on a river the size of the Mississippi.

“In the case of the Mississippi River, the periodic nature of flooding is an expected, natural phenomenon,” he said. “Although humans can’t directly control meteorological conditions responsible for flooding our rivers, infrastructure — dams, reservoirs, flood-control levees and spillways — can modify the effects.”

Both agree, though, that no “quick fix” exists.

“This is a problem of human behaviors and expectations,” O’Neill said. “People who live in regularly flooded areas actually develop what scientists call ‘disaster cultures,’ where they understand something about the risks, at least of ‘normal’ floods, and work around those expectations.”

In Vidalia, city officials are talking about just that.

“For one, I think we are going to have to swap our drainage on the riverfront to a pumping station instead of just draining the water into the river,” Copeland said. “When the water gets to a certain height we can’t use them.”

Copeland also said the city is thinking about adding additional flood protection in the form of a sea wall on the riverfront.

“If the water does start to get this high on a more regular basis, we are going to need some more structures that will help keep out the water,” he said.

The problem, O’Neill said, is humans can’t really set expectations for super storms.

“We have no idea where such events might happen,” O’Neill said. “If a levee were to fail along the hundreds of miles of levee lines, where would it fail? And how could we stop it once failure begins?

“This scenario is truly frightening, because the force of the river behind such a break would be tremendous.”

Flood control in action

Heitmuller said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done all it can at this point in the 2011 flood, which includes opening up the Morganza Spillway, south of Natchez to move more water out of the river channel quickly.

“The intentional breach of the Birds Point Levee in Missouri and the opening of Morganza Spillway constitute the ‘quickest’ fix, but exemplify the hard choices made to ‘save most’ while ‘losing a few,’” he said.

There’s no alternative but to adjust expectations, O’Neill said.

“We have to be willing to sacrifice farmland and do so deliberately and with expectations understood,” she said. “And we have to create incentives or requirements in our zoning and other policies to increase infiltration upstream.

In Natchez, where the majority of the city sits protected on top of a large bluff, City Engineer David Gardner sees the concern, but thinks the country’s flood control system is working.

“The Corps has designed the navigational control of the river through the levee system to have the river be self-cleansing,” he said. “The theory is that through the levees the water gets out quicker, and because of this silt in the water doesn’t just sit there and build up. It gets pushed out, leaving you more volume inside the levee system to hold water.”

Gardner said the levees were also built to take curves out of the river so that the water can move out faster.

Gardner said he does not believe that the levees will be the cause for higher water levels for the area, but even if they did the benefits of having the levee system far outweigh the benefits of not having one.

“You definitely want them,” he said. “They do a good job of using the design inside the levees to make sure the water flows quick enough to get out.”

  • Anonymous

    I am not an engineer and my comments here will probably exemplify that but it seems to me there is a way to mitigate some of the disaster that happens almost on a yearly basis to not only the Mississippi River Valley, but also on the Red River Valley in Minnesota and South Dakota.

    The Romans built these huge aqueducts in ancient times to carry water to their cities. New York City has many of these same type aqueducts that supply water from the Upstate. Why not construct some of these type of aqueducts in the form of spillways to carry the water from where it’s not wanted to where it IS wanted.

    I hear every few years about cattle dying in Western Texas because there is no water.  Why not build some type of feeder aqueduct system that will carry the excess from the Mississippi or Red River and pipe it to Lubbock or Midland and put it into some huge holding ponds dug out of the desert earth where the population is maybe 2 cows per every 50 square miles. 

    Yeah, I know, it will cost a whole lot of money to build. But think of the money that is lost every year to these floods. And the lives. and the livelihoods. One place is drowning while the other place is dying from thirst. This situation calls for our money more than the defense contractors do for the extension of endless wars.

  • Wilson Phillips

    Or build an aqueduct for the Morganza Spillway so that it would channel that water to the gulf and not flood so many homes when we open it.

    Wait. That would create jobs. So would replacing all of those bridges that they say are about to fail. No. That makes too much sense. We will be having none of that.

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous

    If the river flows at 2.5 million cubic feet per second at major flood stage and the flow at flood stage is 1.25 million cfs, how in the world do you mechanically removed that incremental volume of water.  It would have to be mechanical since our elevation is so near sea level.   We are talking about creating another Mississippi River to handle the excess. The numbers are absolutely staggering. 

    The 1927 flood registered about 5 to 6 feet below the 2011 flood on the Natchez gauge.  The difference is the 1927 flood covered the entire flood plain.  I had an old timer tell me that the 1927 flood water was up to the second floor of a hotel in Ferriday. 

  • Anonymous

    Good point petermichael. Re-distribution of water especially to arid areas makes a lot of sense. Compensating for the effects of “climate change” would make even the global warmists happy.

  • Anonymous

    LMAO @ the idiots who think these are plausible ideas.

  • Anonymous

    “The numbers are absolutely staggering” indeed. However, if the removal of water would be evenly spread out over the entire year, a lower water level of the river thus created would be able to better accommodate the seasonal surge.

  • Mark Stone

    I’m a professional water resources engineer with
    a PhD in hydraulic engineering. The problem is that the system is
    over-engineered and people have encroached upon the river and its natural
    floodplain. There is no feasible way to engineer ourselves out of this problem.


    To put things into perspective, at the
    Mississippi’s current discharge, it would take about 1 week to fill Lake Mead
    (the largest reservoir in North America). Further, it would take less than 4
    days of the current flowrate to equal an entire year’s worth of flow in the
    Colorado River. One more statistic, the current Mississippi flow is 200 times
    the flood capacity of the Rio Grande.


    Until we learn to start working with nature
    rather than fighting it, we will always be stuck in a losing battle.
    Unfortunately, the damage has already been done in the Mississippi River Basin
    through a century of misguided policies. I will add that these policies had
    their detractors from the beginning. It’s just a matter of time before a
    catastrophic event reclaims the entire floodplain for the river. I just hope
    that day is a long ways away.

  • Dennis Shibut

    Most of the comments here only mention ‘mitigation’, i.e., bigger and higher levees to prevent future flooding. It’s like the proverbial putting a bigger lock on the barn door after the horse has escaped. As this article so rightly points out, it is not the levees that are the cause of the massive flooding, but the super-storms along with super-tornadoes and super-hurricanes from climate change that are the root cause. In 1992 at the Rio Summit, scientists from around the world warned elected leaders that continued global warming from burning oil and coal for energy and transport would push our climates to their extremes: extreme heat waves, extreme cold, extreme drought, and extreme rain and snow. Now we are seeing these extreme events everywhere, from Russia to Australia and especially this year in the United States. The best thing we should all do to halt climate change and future super-storms is to reduce our use of fossil fuels and support government projects to give America clean, renewable energy. Scientists from NASA, NOAA, and the National Academy of Science, who advise the Congress and President, say we have one last chance to save the situation, but we must all work together to get it done.

  • Anonymous

    Get your head out of your ___! Anomalies have happened in weather patterns since the beginning of time.  I guess you are going to blame the 27 flood on global warming??

  • Anonymous

    Wonder if climate change has something to do with this. Warmer air holds more precipatation, and the air has certainly been getting warmer throughout the Miss. river basin.

  • Deanna Close

    The entire country is building structures, paving wider streets, making bigger parking lots.  The runoff that ensues then becomes the problem of those along the rivers.  If we don’t start making parking lots that are permeable status quo and rain barrels for all homes the norm, the problem will only get worse.  It won’t stop the flooding, but it can reduce the severity of flooding.  I’d rather put a rain barrel on my gutter than pay taxes to give a farmer money because he couldn’t farm because his land got flooded to save a town.  

  • Anonymous

    If the Morganza Spillway would be used for what it is designed for we wouldn’t have high waters anywhere.  However, many people have built beautiful camps and homes within this spillway and because of this the gates are not opened until they have to be instead of opening them earlier to release pressure further north.  People who own these structures within the spillway receive letters from the corp of engineers each year reminiding them that at any time the spillway could be flooded. However politics now com into play and the Morganza Spillway is only opened with the threat of New Orleans flooding.

  • Anonymous

    The anti-climate change crowd has reduced thinking to a social exercise for the challenged learner.  Climate change scientists know there have been anomalies and adjust for them in their work.  Ordinary dupes see an anomaly as a conclusion to be made in their favor and want to stop thinking.  The fact we had a flood in 1927 does not necessarily mean that frequent  floods in the 2000′s are NOT caused by climate change.  I swear folks in Mississippi do not realize why their state is last on so many lists and do not suspect it is their thinking.

  • Anonymous

    Your assumption about climate change scientists knowledge and my being from Mississippi, just goes to show some people are not nearly as smart as they think they are.

  • Anonymous

    Very well said

  • Kathy

    I know I’m gonna get flamed for this, but ND, your calling the flood ‘The Great Flood of 2011′ is a little bit overboard, don’t you think? Yes, the river reached record highs. Yes, there was flooding, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Now, if the levees would have broken and turned Concordia Parish into a big bowl of alligator soup, then we could call it a ‘Great Flood’.  

  • Anonymous

    To you zealots, everything is caused by “climate change”, “global warming”, global cooling” or whatever angle of the scam you are trying to pull that particular week.  Nice racket you’ve got going there, Chicken Little.

  • Anonymous

    How do you think Los Angeles gets its water?  Aqueducts from elsewhere.

  • Anonymous

    Hello Spam-bot Astro-turfer.

    This moron would just love to send us all back to the dark ages.

  • Anonymous

    Spam-bot astro-turfer.

  • Anonymous

    Man, that’s just a spam-bot astro-turfer eviro-whackadoole Marxist.