As the Mississippi River continues to rise, on Friday morning, U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers has the authority to breach a southeast Missouri levee. A temporary restraining order brought by the Missouri attorney general earlier this week sought to keep the Corps from deliberately flooding over 130,000 prime farmland acres to relieve pressure on the levee system.
Limbaugh said the Corps has the right to proceed based on a 1928 law that ties the flood plan to the river level in Cairo, Illinois. Cairo, which sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, is currently under threat from flooding. The law – passed when the Bootheel floodway was in timber and yet to be developed – says the levee at Birds Point, Missouri, can be opened when the river level in Cairo hits 60.5 feet. That level is forecast to be reached on Saturday.
On Friday morning, Delta Farm Press spoke with Jim Pogue,the Corps’ Public Affairs Specialist for the Memphis District, about the latest developments. Among his comments:
The federal judge has ruled in favor of the Corps being able to apply that 1928 law?
“Judge Limbaugh ruled against the temporary restraining order (brought by the Missouri attorney general). That means, at this point, there’s nothing to stop us from moving forward with the plan if that becomes necessary.
“Right now, we’re in a watch-and-wait mode and are monitoring the river. We have forces prepositioned. But we’re in a watch-and-wait mode.”
Has the plan been refined or still remains the same as the beginning of the week?
“The plan is to open a 2,000-foot-wide gap near the north end of the floodway in the Mississippi River mainline levee.”
You said in an earlier interview it wouldn’t mean a ‘wall of rushing water’ through the floodway…
“The models indicate it wouldn’t be a tsunami. But it would be a whole lot of water going through there. That’s for sure.”
How much water would actually go through?
“If we open a gap in the levee, it would carry approximately 550,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water. We’re looking at potentially 2 million cfs coming out of the combination of the two river systems when they crest. This could conceivably drop that by a quarter.”
Please clear something up. There has been some confusion about the trigger on the plan. Some say the levee will be blown when the river level reaches 60.5 feet at Cairo, (Illinois). Others say the level must reach 61 feet.
“The thing is, there are no hard and fast numbers. There are some guidelines. We’re at a point where it’s a lot more art than science.
“General Walsh, the president of the Mississippi River Commission, has scores of experts, scientists and engineers who are helping collect data-points, analyze them, and run the numbers. This is a 24-hour process, right now.
“We’re doing everything we can to not operate the floodway. But, by the same token, if we get to a point where the levees start to naturally overtop, or where we could see uncontrolled failures, then the general will have to make a decision (on whether to blow the levee).”
Are residents in the floodway still able to move possessions out today (Friday)?
“I don’t have any information on that.”
Are unforeseen consequences part of your planning process? Have y’all brain-stormed on that? Folks in the floodway wonder if a deliberate flood would spread farther than expected, do that sort of thing.
“That’s the sort of thing that’s driving this process. The last thing we want to have happen is have an uncontrolled levee overtopping or a levee breach, for that matter.
“One of the scenarios our folks have run is: if the levee just north of the floodway were to breach, what would happen? The models indicate it could potentially flood millions of acres in the Bootheel of Missouri and into northeastern Arkansas – perhaps as far south as Helena. There are quite a few communities of significant size in (that region).
“This is all about taking pressure of the system. It isn’t exclusively about saving Cairo.”