– Army Corps opens Louisiana spillway to avert flood possibility (Salt Lake Tribune):
New Orleans — In a last-ditch move to relieve stress on levees burdened by floodwaters, the Army Corps of Engineers opened a major Mississippi River flood gate on Saturday for the second time in nearly 40 years, funneling water toward farmland and small communities to save New Orleans and Baton Rouge from inundations.
At 3 p.m. CDT, a crane lifted the metal teeth on one of the Morganza Spillway’s 125 gates, and an avalanche of foamy white water began rushing through, forming a massive and fast-growing puddle on land that minutes earlier had been dry. Water branched out like giant fingers over the grassy floodplain and began rippling southward, toward isolated hamlets, fishing and hunting camps, and towns tucked among the bayous. One news helicopter spotted a rabbit darting out of the way as the flooding began.
It was the first time since 1973 the Corps has resorted to opening the Morganza Spillway, about 40 miles north of the state capital, Baton Rouge, and 185 miles upstream from New Orleans. The move underscored the potential for catastrophe if the rain-swollen Mississippi were allowed to run unfettered through the state’s two largest cities.
“The system is under tremendous pressure, and it’s going to be under tremendous pressure for quite a long time,” said the Corps’ Mississippi division commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, at a news conference shortly before the gate was lifted. “This system was really designed back in the 1930s to protect lives, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Walsh and Lt. Col. Ed Fleming, the New Orleans district commander of the Corps, outlined a mathematical formula that would determine how many more gates must open before the levees downstream are considered safe. The goal is to shave enough water off the Mississippi to protect levees designed to hold if the flow of water passing through Baton Rouge hits 1.5 million cubic feet per second. On Saturday, the flow reached 1.51 million cubic feet per second, prompting the decision to open one gate of the Spillway, which will bring the flow down to the 1.5 level.
But the Mississippi has yet to crest in Louisiana, and the flow is expected to reach 1.626 million cubic feet per second by the time it does, about a week from now. Eventually, enough gates to reduce the Mississippi’s flow by 125,000 cubic feet per second will be opened, a process that will take several days, to reduce the chances of people and wildlife being caught by the rising waters.
If Morganza is opened, water would flow 20 miles south into the Atchafalaya River. From there it would roll on to the Gulf of Mexico, flooding swamps and croplands. Morgan City, a community of 12,000, shored up levees as a precaution.
With crop prices soaring, farmers along the lower Mississippi River had been expecting a big year, maybe even a huge one. Now, many are facing ruin, with floodwaters swallowing up corn, cotton, rice and soybean fields.And even more farmland will be drowned when the spillway is opened. Unlocking the spillway would inundate Louisiana Cajun country with as much as 25 feet of water but would ease the pressure on levees downstream, averting a potentially bigger disaster in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Trouble has already found the fields in far northeastern Louisiana, where Tap Parker and about 50 other farmers filled and stacked massive sandbags along an old levee to no avail. The Mississippi flowed over the top Thursday, and nearly 19 square miles of soybeans and corn, known in the industry as “green gold,” was lost.
“This was supposed to be our good year. We had a chance to really catch up. Now we’re scrambling to break even,” said Parker, who has been farming since 1985.
More than 1,500 square miles of farmland in Arkansas, which produces about half of the nation’s rice, have been swamped over the past few weeks. In Missouri, where a levee was intentionally blown open to ease the flood threat in the town of Cairo, Ill., more than 200 square miles of croplands were submerged, damage that will probably exceed $100 million. More than 2,100 square miles could flood in Mississippi.