In the 24 hours since the Corps of Engineers opened a two-mile-long breach in the Birds Point levee near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, flooding the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway and the 130,000 acres of prime Southeast Missouri farmland it includes, I’ve spoken with several friends from that region. All disagree with the Corps decision; a few vehemently so.
I can’t say that I blame them. If river water was ceiling deep in my house and swamping my farmland and drowning my livelihood I would probably share their anger.
The flood of 1937 – the last time the Birds Point Floodway was activated – has always been the high water of record. No longer. I am neither an engineer nor a hydrologist. But the system, which includes the lower Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers along with the Mississippi above and below Cairo, Ill., is holding an enormous volume of water. More – much more – I would guess, than during the winter and spring of 1937. I was at Kentucky and Barkley lakes Tuesday. The two reservoirs are the last and largest on the Tennessee River and Cumberland River, respectively. They feed the lower Ohio (the Barkley and Kentucky Lake dams are only about 25 miles from the Ohio) which feeds the Mississippi – and at the moment – the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.
Kentucky and Barkley are at an elevation of 373 feet and rising. That is 14 feet over summer pool – an unprecedented level. A lake that’s 14 foot above summer pool may not sound like all that much, considering what is filling the Birds Point spillway. But +14 feet in a lowland reservoir that under normal conditions covers more than 100,000 acres is a staggering amount of water, all of which will have to pass through the Mississippi River system. The dams that are holding the water weren’t in place in 1937. If the waters were moving toward the spillway unabated the situation would quickly jump from disastrous to deadly.
The Corps has come under withering criticism, some of which is undoubtedly deserved. But like everyone else they are dealing with conditions heretofore unseen.