Levees are decades-old protectors

Published 12:12 am Sunday, May 8, 2011

NATCHEZ — The history of the Mississippi River levee system as we know it really begins in 1927.

Levees weren’t a new idea then, but creating a federally controlled system of them was.

The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 killed 246 people and covered thousands of square miles with up to 30 feet of water.

Email newsletter signup

Levees along the Mississippi and its tributaries have existed since the 1800s. But it wasn’t until the Flood Control Act of 1928 that they began to grow taller, stronger and were connected to form a mainline levee all along the river.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District was unable to provide any exact dates for work done on the local levees, but said work to strengthen the levee system has continued as funding was appropriated since 1928.

In addition to the mainline Mississippi River levee that runs the length of the river in Concordia Parish and to the north and south of it, the parish is nearly totally ringed with another levee system.

The ring levee, as local leaders call it, runs alongside the Red, Black and Tensas rivers.

It encases the parish except for a gap on the Tensas/Concordia line.

Stretches of the ring levee are U.S. Corps of Engineers levees and other sections belong to the Fifth District Levee Board, said Ben Robinson of the Corps Vicksburg District public affairs office.

Local levees were built up from the originals constructed well before the Civil War, Robinson said. They are composed of dirt and clay. A hydrologic analysis is used to determine what the appropriate construction and height should be, he said.

“They go out and do geological borings to analyze and look at what the structure of the existing levee is,” Robinson said.

The results of those studies direct the Corps to know what type of dirt is best for that particular section of levee.

Once the Corps builds the levees, beyond regular checks for structural concerns, routine levee maintenance is largely left to the local levee boards.

“What we do is maintain the levees by clipping, mowing and keeping it clean,” Fifth District Levee Board President Reynold Minsky said. “We keep the top graded and move debris off the levee after floods.”

Keeping a thick covering of grass on the levees is an essential step, Minsky said.

“We like to keep Bermuda grass,” he said. “Johnson grass will grow wild and cause avenues for water to get through the levee.”

During a flood fight, the levee board patrols the levees in search of potential problems.

Both the Corps and the levee board have said the mainline levee is what will protect Concordia Parish from rising waters.

The ring levee could slow waters headed to the parish from another parish in the case of a mainline levee breach elsewhere, but the ring doesn’t fully wrap the parish and could not protect it entirely.