As the Upper Midwest received yet another round of rainfall over Memorial Day weekend, the floods of 2019 on the major river systems were extended into mid-June at least.
The floods have been ongoing since last fall and winter, when the region received twice the usual amount of snowfall. That was just the beginning. The 12-month period from April 2018 to May has turned out to be the wettest year since record-keeping began in 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
On top of that came an unusual Bomb Cyclone in mid-March that sluiced heavy rainwaters off frozen ground into already-swollen rivers. That prompted some of the worst flooding so far.
In their length and duration, the floods of 2019 hark back to an earlier time, before today’s flood control measures were put in place. “Flood events prior to the Great 1927 Flood were much longer in duration, at times as long as six months,” the New Orleans/Baton Rouge National Weather Service office said on May 21.
The records of earlier historic flood events are being broken in many places. Those earlier floods were mostly concentrated in one river system or one area. But this year, the snowfall, then rainfall, has been spread out across the entire upper and central Midwest. The floods of 2019 have produced multiple and repeated flood crests over most of the major river arteries, including the Missouri, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and Arkansas rivers.
It’s not over yet, and no one has final estimates of the damage. But it’s certain that the costs will be measured in the hundreds rather than tens of billions of dollars.
As of March 1, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers held soybean stocks of 2.716 billion bushels, the largest on record for the time period. Corn stocks were the third largest on record. In April, farmers were told by U.S. Agriculture Under Secretary Bill Northey that the USDA has no mechanism to compensate farmers for grains in bins destroyed by floods, because in “normal” floods farmers usually have time to move them. Some farm-state senators have voiced interest in passing legislation to remedy that, but that process will take months.
A record amount of grains was binned not only because of the trade dispute with China but because of widespread restrictions to barge traffic due to the floods.
Waterlogged fields have delayed corn plantings, which usually take place in April or early May. Some farmers could switch to soy, but soy prices have been hammered by the floods, the carryover already in the bins and the ongoing trade war with China.
Fertilizer shipments have been backed up, leading to price rises, as some suppliers ship by more expensive rail. Some fertilizer barges many not reach St. Paul, Minnesota, until late June—after most crops are planted.
The Illinois River, a major grain artery, has allowed some barge traffic during the spring season, but has been closed or restricted due to high water for much of it. In addition, some of its locks and dams will close for repairs this summer. Next summer, the entire Illinois River system will be closed for weeks as more locks are repaired. The navigation industry worked closely with the Corps to coordinate the closures close together instead of stringing them out.
At some locations on the Mississippi River, flooding has persisted for three months or longer. About 15 square blocks of downtown Davenport, Iowa, flooded when a levee broke April 30. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the river first rose above flood stage in the first week of January and has been in flood ever since. If that extends into June, as seems likely, it would beat the longevity record from 1927.
At press time, Locks and Dam 24, 25, 27, Melvin Price and Jerry Costello remained closed until further notice due to high water levels.
According to the Corps of Engineers Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center, an average of about 31 million tons of commodities are shipped on the upper Mississippi River from March through May over a typical five-year period. But so far this year, the Upper Mississippi River, where locks and dams control the river, has had only snatches of a true navigation season, as some locks have opened briefly and closed again in between renewed rainfalls.
The St. Louis, Missouri, harbor closed again May 23 after more rain. Even when it was briefly open, barge to sizes were limited and bridge transits restricted to daylight hours.
Flooding stresses the levee system, which some maintain isn’t really a “system” at all, but an imperfectly joined patchwork of locally funded and maintained levees, and federal levees maintained by the Corps. During a May 14 talk by Garrett Fleming, chief of the operations Technical Policy and Physical Support Brand of the St. Louis Engineer District, to the St. Louis Agribusiness Club, most of the questions from the audience concerned the Corps’ levee policies.
Responding to questioners who suggested that flood-damaged levees could be rebuilt with adjustments, Fleming responded that levee heights are mandated by Congress; while the Corps maintains them, any changes must come from there. The Corps assists local levee districts to stay within their mandated dimensions, although during emergencies there can be some flexibility. “Right now,” Fleming told his audience, “we’re trying to maintain the system we have.”
Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon, the Corps’ deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations, has tried to defend the Corps against charges that it has neglected Missouri River flood control. After saying early on that the flooding would have happened even if all the Missouri River reservoirs were empty, he more recently told one media outlet that the Corps is considering realigning its levees along the river and expanding or building new floodways, easements and retention basins to capture more floodwater.
Farther south on the Mississippi River, the Corps has already opened the Bonnet Carré spillway twice this spring—the first time that has happened in the structure’s 88-year history. The spillway, completed in 1931, is a 1.5-mile-long construction of 350 concrete bays and 7,000 huge timbers called needles. It is opened to relieve stress on New Orleans levees when the Mississippi River flows at 1.25 million cubic feet per second.
Its early opening in February marked the 13th time it has been used overall, but only the second time it’s been used in consecutive years. The water is diverted along a 6-mile course of guide levees to brackish Lake Pontchartrain, after which it flows to the Mississippi Sound in the Gulf of Mexico.
On May 26, Mississippi River Commission President and Mississippi Valley Division Commander Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser approved the opening of the Morganza Control Structure and Floodway. If forecasted conditions remain unchanged, the operation will begin June 2. The Morganza Spillway diverts Mississippi River floodwaters into the Atchafalaya River basin.
Unlike the Bonnet Carré, the Morganza floods agricultural land. Land deeds in the area include an easement that allows for the flooding at need. When it is opened, it will be for only the third time in its history. Morganza will open when the Mississippi River rises to 59.5 feet. Current forecasts had the river reaching more than 62 feet at Red River Landing June 5.
On the Tennessee-Tombigbee System the main issue has been a single sandbar—albeit one hundreds of feet long. Unprecedented flooding on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway closed the system in March by dumping more than 400,000 cubic feet of silt near Aberdeen Lock. That created a sandbar that is taking the Corps of Engineers and its contractors an estimated extra $10 million beyond normal funds to clear. On March 13, Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Authority Administrator Mitch Mays called the sandbar a “once-in-a-generation event.” After months of work, a pilot channel was cleared and the system was declared open May 23.
Missouri River tensions
Along the Missouri River basin, the floods have reignited and intensified long-simmering debates about how the Corps of Engineers manages the rivers.
Modern Missouri River management began with the 1944 passage of the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act of 1944. It consolidated two separate plans and authorized construction of 107 separate projects, including six dams and reservoirs between 1944 and 1966. As its title indicates, the main purpose of the act was flood control. Controlled releases from the reservoirs were supposed to regulate flow, which also provided irrigation to farmers and electric power from a series of hydroelectric plants.
The Corps manages the Missouri River through its Master Manual, a 432-page document that lays out eight congressionally authorized purposes: flood control, river navigation, hydroelectric power, irrigation, water supply, water quality, recreation, and fish and wildlife (including preservation of endangered species).
Complicating Missouri River management has been the listing of three Missouri River species as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In 1985, the piping plover and interior least tern were listed; the pallid sturgeon was added in 1990.
In 2004, the Missouri River Recovery Program began. The species recovery effort is overseen by the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC, known as “Mr. Rick”). Congress authorized MRRIC in Section 5018 of the 2007 Water Resources Development Act.; it was set up in July 2008. MRRIC held its first plenary session of the year May 21 to 23 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
After the 2011 floods, the governors of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming urged the Corps to refocus on flood control.
On March 13, 2018, as a result of a suit by landowners along the Missouri River, a United States Court of Federal Claims judge ruled that the Corps bears responsibility for causing recurrent flooding resulting in the uncompensated “taking” of farms and property in four Midwest states: Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. The case, known as Ideker Farms, is in a damages-assessment phase in the Court of Federal Claims. The Corps’ compensation costs could rise into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
A website set up by Polsinelli PC, the Kansas City-based law firm that represented the Ideker Farms plaintiffs, says of the 2019 floods: “So we see in 2019 water levels along the Missouri River reaching historic highs. The resulting damages are horrific. Again, this is consistent with a changed river that once again is flood-prone despite the flood control efforts undertaken in the last century to harness the river. At least six of the top ten crests of the river in recorded history, dating back into the 1800s, have occurred since the changes were pursued on an unprecedented and accelerated basis by the Corps in 2004: 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2019. The river has experienced flooding in one way or another in every year since 2007 with less flooding realized in the drought years of 2009 and 2012.”
On April 3 of this year, after a meeting with officials of the Corps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a dairy farmer himself, said, “It’s long past time for change. We must begin a serious discussion about how we improve flood control on the Missouri River. One third of Missouri’s most productive farmlands’ fate rests in the hands of those who manage our rivers—the Corps. The Corps maintains one of the nation’s largest flood-control systems on the Missouri River mainstem, but the devastating flooding we are experiencing and the previous record 2011 flooding have demonstrated [that] the current system is insufficient to protect us.”
Arkansas River flood heights unprecedented
Oklahoma and Arkansas are experiencing what they are calling the worst flooding in the history of both states. Both have received excessive rainfall for more than a month.
On May 23 two barges broke away from an Arkansas River mooring and raced downriver. Dramatic video of the barges—still tied together—striking Lock and Dam 16 at the small town of Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, was captured by a Cox News helicopter in the early afternoon of May 23. Webbers Falls is about 70 miles southeast of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Both barges sank within about a minute of striking the dam.
Local news sources reported that the town’s 600 residents were evacuated after a Facebook posting on its official page said the runaway barges posed a dire threat to the river town’s 600 residents: “Evacuate Webbers Falls immediately. The barges are loose and has the potential to hit the lock and dam 16. If the dam breaks, it will be catastrophic!! Leave now!!”
Just downriver from Webbers Fall lay the towns of Fort Smith and Van Buren, Arkansas. At press time the port operations of both towns were underwater. The Arkansas River was predicted to crest at Van Buren at 42.5 feet about 1 a.m. May 29, according to the National Weather Service. The previous highest level recorded was 38.42 feet.
Keystone Lake, a part of the Arkansas River widened by Keystone Dam, was reported to be nearing the limits of its holding capacity. That means any new rainfall will have to be released. The Tulsa Engineer District said it expected the floodgates to hold.
Further downriver, the executive director of the Port of Little Rock, Arkansas, told local media he was not worried about flooding at the port. But he was concerned that it might take months for normal river traffic to resume after the high water recedes.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has ordered the Arkansas National Guard to deploy to western Arkansas to help with flood fights.
David Murray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.