The Floods on the Mississippi: Where Can the Water Go?
Our hearts go out to everyone suffering in the path of this tragic flood. We have deep roots in the Mississippi River basin, with projects from the headwaters all the way to the Gulf. Conservancy scientists and conservation staff live and work in communities up and down the river. Here is what they've witnessed.
- Michael Reuter, director of The Nature Conservancy’s North America Freshwater Program and the Great Rivers Partnership, looks back on the Mississippi flood and proposes a holistic view for addressing floods in the future.
Nature Conservancy staff survey flood conditions near New Orleans and Baton Rouge and discuss how river systems might be better managed for people and nature in the future.
- The 12 million people who live along the Mississippi River have either lived through or heard tales of the mighty floods of 1927, 1937, 1973, 1993 and 2008, each event causing its own brand of devastation to the people and communities along the river. Here is a brief timeline of those floods:
Natural solutions must be incorporated into plans to help alleviate flood damage now and in the future.
The Mississippi River has something to say. And though we tend to listen more often when it’s shouting, there is a calm and constant message out there. It’s asking us to slow down. Let’s be thoughtful about where we develop new structures so that the river has breathing room and we stay out of harm’s way. Let’s incorporate wetlands into our farming practices so that we can pace water drainage and eliminate the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous entering the waterways.
Nature Conservancy Senior Scientist Jeff Opperman looks back on the lessons learned from Mississippi flooding in 1927 and 2011 and finds that while the flood planning worked much better in 2011, there are still concerns about the future:
"The system was able to handle river levels that approached or exceeded historic records. However, the total volume of water during this flood was below the volume the system was designed to handle. For a variety of reasons, including the extensive loss of upstream wetlands and floodplains that store and slow floodwaters, floods of an equivalent volume of water rise higher today than they did decades ago. Thus, the system may not provide the full level of protection it was designed to do. Because climate change forecasts suggest that the volume of floods in the Mississippi may become larger, it is prudent to ask whether the system needs more release valves and other improvements, such as strengthening levees in heavily populated areas."
Keith Ouchley, executive director of the Conservancy's Louisiana chapter surveys flood damange along the lower Mississippi River and talks about how it has affected him his neighbors.
Should we plan for future floods with climate change in mind? Our director of U.S. government relations says absolutely. But there is a different political reality:
"To plan for future of the Mississippi, it is also important to know
whether the flood of 2011 is a very unusual event or is likely to
re-occur more frequently as Earth’s climate grows warmer. Yet in the
U.S., unlike Colombia, the issue of climate change has become so
politically charged that, despite the climate predictions articulated by
the scientific community, members of Congress are discouraging
government officials from including climate risk in planning for the
future of the Mississippi and other areas exposed to natural hazards."
Keith Ouchley writes about the flood waters which have now come within 150 yards of his front porch. He takes comfort and pride in nature's resilience and the work he's done to help restore the Delta:
"While we have changed the environment, and in many ways made our own society more susceptible to both natural and man-made disturbances, we also have the capacity to heal and help restore the Delta. I am proud of the fact that we have helped protect tens of thousands of acres of remaining forests in the Delta. We have planted millions of trees back to the rich bottomland soils. And, in strategic places, we have begun to reconnect the floodplain back to the river and restore the bayous and creeks that are an integral part of this amazing system. The system is resilient and given the help, it can heal."
- In The Washington Post, Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority says we need more places where the water can go:
“It’s a good system. Is it a great system? No. We need more options, ultimately. We need more relief valves. This thing is literally being tested to its rim. It’s not a comfortable feeling.”
In an interview with NPR while flying over flooding in Louisiana's Atchafalaya River Basin, Louisiana State Director Keith Ouchley says natural areas like the Atchafalaya slow down the flood water. This is one reason why towns in the basin that were predicted to flood by now have been spared so far.
Ouchley also notes that forests clean the water of nutrients that can create dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico:
"These nutrients can be taken up by all of these trees that stretch to the horizon. They thrive on that nitrogen and phosphorous and they take it out of the water before it enters the Gulf of Mexico."
The Nature Conservancy and other experts agree that the region needs more natural areas like this where water can go and reduce flooding in populated areas.
In the same interview, Louisiana scientist Bryan Piazza explains that the water draining into the Atchafalaya will be spread over about a million acres of trees and could be 25 feet deep in some areas:
"This is something like you see in the Amazon River, where the water comes right up to the bottom of the canopy."
Ouchley notes that threatened Louisiana Black Bear can adapt to the flooding by surviving in the canopy:
"There have actually been studies in Arkansas and other places that show the bears can go up to the canopy of the trees and they can live for up to three weeks in the tops of those trees eating insects and vegetation and they don't need to come down."
- The Nature Conservancy is helping take out 17 miles of levee in southern Louisiana that will help prevent flooding in populated areas in the future.
- A recap of the Mississippi floods, what worked, what didn't and how we can prepare for the future:
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