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Unthinkable now thinkable about flooding

The Mississippi River has been talking for more than a decade, and nobody has been listening until Kelley Williams added his voice.

Flooding is the worst in 500 years. Four of the five highest floods ever have happened since 2008. Yet, the government contends that nothing is amiss and everything is on track, as far as flooding is concerned.

Kelley Williams begs to differ and, for a while, was the only person who dared to take on the Corps of Engineers.

Williams calls himself a heretic. After listening to him speak about the role the Corps has played in exacerbating flooding on the Mississippi River, one might come away thinking the world needs a few more heretics — a few more Kelley Williams.

Williams spoke to the Rotary Club of Natchez Wednesday. He and his son have spent the past few years doing what many people thought was unthinkable by questioning the government’s efforts to control the river.

Williams asserts flood control efforts since the 1930s have caused water to flow faster down the river and a bottleneck at the Old River Control structure south of Vidalia has created higher floods in the area.

“They say everything is fine, operating at the optimum and nothing needs to change,” Williams said. “I keep saying we need relief, the plan is not working. And nothing happens — yet.”

For a while, Williams and his son were the only people to address the issue with the Mississippi River Commission. Many thought Williams was crazy to even take on the government, he said.

Undeterred, Williams refused to accept the Corps assertion that the higher floods were the result of increased rainfall. With sound data that shows rainfall has barely changed since the 1930s, William refuted the government’s argument.

Using a model of public policy developed by Joseph P. Overton from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Williams plans to continue until his ideas move from being unimaginable to one day being accepted as public policy.

“Overton studied how public policy and public opinion changes —how it moves from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to the sensible to the popular to policy,” Williams told Rotary Club members. 

In recent years, published studies have started to back Williams. One study, published in February, studied sediment core samples and tree growth rings to reconstruct floods 500 years ago. The evidence reveals that flooding began to increase in the 1930s, concurrent with the Corps of Engineers flood control efforts.

What Williams experienced with his own eyes and witnessed first-hand on his farm south of Natchez was now being substantiated by scientific evidence.

Williams plans to continue beating the drum and testifying before the Mississippi River Commission until changes are made. Williams invited Rotary Club members and anyone else to join his crusade.

“When we first started thinking about it, it was unthinkable that someone would criticize the Corps,” Williams said. “It has moved to radical now.”

“But with your help, we might move it to policy.”

Sometimes it takes a heretic to make the impossible possible and make change happen. 

Ben Hillyer is the news editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3549 or by email at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.