ARMY CORPS: 'We can no longer control the water'
Louisiana crews drive 110-foot poles into the Bayou Chene channel bottom as they prepare to sink a barge as a flood-control mechanism. State and federal officials are battling historic flooding.
The Army Corps of Engineers is struggling to control historic flows at the southern terminus of the Mississippi River even as it takes unprecedented steps to avoid flooding, a top agency official said yesterday.
"We are now in an area where we're having difficulty controlling the kind of flow that's coming in" to the New Orleans area, said Kathleen White, head of climate preparedness and resilience for the Army Corps. "We're dealing with a lot of water, and there's still more to come."
White spoke at a conference on extreme weather and climate at Columbia University yesterday as the Army Corps said it will soon open a Mississippi River floodway in south-central Louisiana for only the third time since its construction in 1954.
Even more troubling, White said, is that many of the Army Corps reservoirs in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma are filled to their capacity.
"If they are full, we can no longer control the water. Water coming in equals water going out, and that means that downstream areas are subject to flood," White said.
The Mississippi River, which has been swollen for more than two months, is expected to crest Wednesday, prompting major preparations by the Army Corps and warnings from White. The agency has been undertaking "flood fight" operations on the Mississippi for 216 days as of this morning — just short of the record 225 days in response to flooding in 1973 (Climatewire, May 29).
"We're going to definitely break that record with the amount of water coming down the river today," White said yesterday.
In preparation for the Mississippi River surge, the Army Corps opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway on May 10 for the second time this year — and only the 14th time since the project was built in 1931. The spillway diverts water from the Mississippi into Lake Pontchartrain just upriver from New Orleans.
The Army Corps said Tuesday that it also will open the Morganza Control Structure and Floodway north of Baton Rouge on Sunday to divert water from the Mississippi onto the Atchafalaya River basin, a large wetland and swamp west of the Louisiana capital.
White told the conference of scientists and experts that communities and elected officials have to start developing stronger solutions to flooding and the impacts of sea-level rise. Many of the 292 jetties that the Army Corps has built around the United States have lost up to a half-foot of protective capabilities because of sea-level rise, White said.
"For recovery, everybody wants to recover quickly. But the real issue is recovering wisely, and we have a history of not recovering wisely," White said. "We go back in and say we're going to rebuild, and we rebuild exactly the thing that was destroyed. We can't afford to do that anymore. We don't have enough money to keep doing this."