Flood-Fighting, Infrastructure Dominate Annual Low-Water Meeting

By David Murray

August 14, 2017

As the Mississippi River Commission (MRC) held one of its annual low-water meetings aboard the mv. Mississippi in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on August 7, a parade of speakers lauded President Trump’s infrastructure efforts and praised the Corps of Engineers for its flood-fighting work, while raising various concerns.

Most speakers represented drainage and levee districts along the river. Several of them thanked Maj. Gen. Michael Wehr, outgoing president of the MRC, for his service.

Smith Urges Levee Repairs

The first speaker was Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), whose congressional district includes 210 miles of Mississippi River frontage. Smith began by praising President Trump’s infrastructure efforts as did a number of other speakers and panelists that day. Smith noted that in his inaugural address, Trump did not mention healthcare or taxes, but did mention infrastructure.

Smith said he was one of a group of congressmen who asked Trump to rescind the “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) rule that was enacted last year, but has been suspended since it became the subject of lawsuits by many trade and civic groups and more than 30 states. Smith asked the members of the MRC to aid efforts to roll back unnecessary regulations. “We should not be deterred by overreaching bureaucracy or overblown environmental concerns,” he said.

He noted that levees associated with the Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries (MRT) project saved the east side of his district from flood damage in the floods of 2011 and in this year’s spring floods. He said he was “disappointed” that levee slides in New Madrid, Randolph and Scott counties have not yet been repaired, and that the Little River Levee District would be happy to help.

“The Corps needs to provide peace of mind that all is being done to restore flood protections that have been cut because of government red tape,” said Smith.

Much of Smith’s message was echoed by Darren Lingle, representing Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who also urged that unnecessary regulations be streamlined and that the Corps continue to cooperate and communicate with local agencies. He said that Blunt was one of the requesters of the just-published report by the Government Accountability Office on the Corps’ dredging efforts (WJ, August 7), and noted that the Ste. Genevieve Levee District 2 is important even though its levees are not federal, because failure of its levees could affect navigation.

MRT Called Nation’s Greatest Investment

Harry Stevens, representing the Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association, said that that investment in the MRT system prevented more than $246 billion in damage during the 2011 floods, for a return on investment of 46 to 1. “No other system has been of such benefit to our country,” and it needs to be supported with reinvestment, he said.

Stevens singled out the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for not giving non-federal levees enough credit for their part in preventing floods in 2011 and 2015. “We still have concerns about federal overreach,” he said of plans by FEMA to require non-federal levees to be raised by 3 feet.

Sny Island District Tensions

Mike Reed, representing the Sny Island Levee District in Illinois, spoke on tensions between the levee district and the Rock Island Engineer District that have been simmering for years. The Rock Island District issued a report in 2015 accusing the Sny Island District’s levees of being too high and of causing more flooding of the district’s neighbors. Controversy generated by the report has led to threats of lawsuits and to a letter to Illinois from Missouri’s attorney general.

Reed vigorously disputed those claims, saying, “It is not true” that Sny Island’s levees cause greater downstream flooding. Reed claimed that the mathematical models used by the Rock Island District to make its assessment are flawed.

“The narrative that our levees are causing more flooding needs to stop. It is incorrect and is causing animosity,” he said.

Other Levee Repairs Needed

Charles Earnest, representing the Elk Chute Drainage District in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas that includes the St. Francis River, said his district’s first priority is to update a levee dating from the 1940s that is “at risk due to loss of structural integrity.” It was inspected by a Corps staff that included Col. Michael Ellicott of the Memphis Engineer District, which expects to repair it in 2018 after surveying obstructions.

Jeff Denny, county engineer for Alexander County, Ill., said no repairs have been made to levees breached during the 2011 floods. His county includes Dogtooth Bend, a northerly oxbow loop in the Mississippi River just north of its confluence with the Ohio River. The river is threatening to cut off the loop and crated a new channel across farmland, as it often did before modern river control methods. Deny said that bank protections placed last year have already been severely eroded, and flatly stated, “The levee will breach at the next flood event.” He said, “We know that the Corps does not have statutory authority to repair levees, but if the river cuts a new channel, that is a navigation concern.”

Wehr noted in response. “I am not comfortable with our incremental approach to flood control; we need a more holistic approach.”

Birds’ Point Fallout Lingers

Lester Gooden is vice president of Levee District No. 3 in Wyatt, Mo., that includes the area flooded when the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway levee was deliberately blown during the 2011 floods when high water threatened Cairo, Ill. Gooden said that although the Corps had studied for years under what conditions to blow the levee, it had no plan for follow-up and how to restore the levee and surrounding area to its previous condition. He said local people were told at first that levees would be rebuilt to a lesser standard of protection; then they were told that the money was not there even for that.

“Our experience is invaluable, yet no one has sought our input, and I am getting gray,” the gray-haired Gooden noted to laughter.

He said that two crevasses need repairing, because they expose the area for further flooding. He also claimed that part of the explosive charge failed to blow, and the explosive material was scattered over farmers’ fields, where it remains today.

SEMO Port To Be Dredged

Kerry Harbison, assistant director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority (SEMO Port), said that his port was one of the ones visited by the official in preparation for the GAO report on Corps dredging practices. SEMO Port has been vocal in protesting the Corps’ decision to apply a million-ton-per-year standard in deciding which river ports get dredged. But he said that the Corps dredge Bill Holman is scheduled to visit his port this year on August 25.

In response to some questions from commission members, Harbison said that the port has, in fact, been averaging about a million tons per year of cargo over the past few years, although the mix is changing with less coal and more sand, gravel and fertilizer.

Mid-Mississippi Rain Increases

Mike Klingner of the Upper Mississippi, Illinois & Missouri River Association (UMIMRA), noted that unlike the Lower Mississippi River, the Upper Mississippi has never had an integrated, comprehensive flood control plan. A 1979 study that profiled flood frequency in the system was published that assumed “infinite height” for levees and calculated a worst-case scenario for flooding, he said.

A 1986 study recognized that raising levees does not increase flood risk for surrounding areas, “but it seems that that level of understanding has since been lost.” Later studies, he said, used existing levee heights instead of the “infinite” heights of earlier studies, leading to what he said were flaws in modeling, such as in the Rock Island District’s report, which used figures from a 1954 report as a “base condition” for its study’s assumptions—with no outside input or public hearings. But, said Klingner, those 1954 figures never represented reality and included assumptions about improvements to levees that were never made.

Klinger also said that the area of the Mississippi River from Rock Island to Cape Girardeau has seen the greatest increase in average annual rainfall of any area in the country, but that this increase has not been taken into account by the Corps’ models. A 2014 study, however, that has been accepted by all Upper Mississippi River and Missouri River states, did ask levee districts for input, and their levees were surveyed by licensed surveyors for the study. “We don’t just want higher levees; we understand that in some conditions, some areas may need to flood. But we want those agreements in place,” said Klingner.

Closing remarks were given by MRC member Sam Angel, the longest-serving member who has served on the MRC since the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Angel, a former president of several companies, said this meeting was especially helpful. He echoed remarks supporting efforts by President Trump to lighten the regulatory burden, and noted that a Corps project needs approval from 37 different agencies. “That’s a significant part of project costs.”

MRC member Dr. Norma Jean Mattei, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of New Orleans, said she was “heartened” to hear that the administration is so interested in infrastructure.