Flood gates close, but levee debate heats up

MISSISSIPPI DELTA — The Steele Bayou Flood Control Structure has been re-opened.

The Steele Bayou structure is located north of Vicksburg and was built in 1969 to provide backwater protection from the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers.

The gates were closed on 25 April in anticipation of the historic flood water levels of 2011. These gates, along with the backwater levee system, held back 16.5 feet of floodwaters from spilling into Mississippi’s South Delta region.

The water level in Eagle Lake was temporarily increased during the recent high water event to help offset the extremely high pressures caused by high water levels on the Mainline Mississippi River levee system. This was necessary to reduce the risk of a levee failure near Eagle Lake.

Eagle Lake will be drawn down in such a manner as to protect the structural integrity of the surrounding banks. Given normal rainfall, the lake is estimated to be above normal levels until mid August. If river levels rise, then the gates may have to be closed to prevent backwater flooding, ultimately delaying the drawdown of Eagle Lake.

In a separate flood-related item, the head of the group overseeing work by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says another floodway could be needed to relieve pressure on levees along the Mississippi River.

Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh told The Commercial Appeal that he’s not saying the agency should build a new floodway to go with the four already in place, but it is an idea that should be studied.

Walsh said it could take between take $1 billion to $2 billion to repair and rebuild the Mississippi River & Tributaries Project, which suffered significant damage when the Mississippi River overflowed its banks earlier this year.

Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, which oversees the corps’ work on the river, said failing to repair the system by the next flood season could cause flooding up and down the system, which stretches from Illinois to Louisiana.

Walsh said the repairs include fixing some 1,000 sand boils, or seepage areas, and restoring the Missouri levees blown up by the corps to purposely inundate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

Congress is looking at ways to fund the levee work, with a House subcommittee already approving the use of $1 billion in untapped bailout funds from the Troubled Assets Recovery Program.

The corps is also considering reengineering parts of the system.

The corps’ recovery process comes at time when the levee system is the subject of growing criticism from environmentalists. They say the history-making flood of 2011 showed the folly of relying too much on levees to restrain the Mississippi.

The river needs to be freer to spread out, said Andrew Fahlund, senior vice president for conservation for the group American Rivers.

“People gained an understanding (during the flood) that we can’t just use all available land and wall off the river and hope for the best,” he said.

Fahlund said he hopes the corps will take a “good, hard look” at additional floodways.

Renée Victoria Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, said the levee system is partly to blame for the largest-ever dead zone — an area of low-oxygen levels caused mostly by agricultural runoff — that’s expected to develop this summer in the Gulf of Mexico.

Levees funnel water downriver faster, resulting in “one big flush” of contaminates in the Gulf of Mexico.

As a result, scientists are predicting the largest dead zone — an area of diminished oxygen levels in the water.

Source: Corps of Engineers; Commercial Appeal

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