The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

The Future of Flood Control in the Mississippi Delta--One Thoughtful Point of View

Posted on June 27, 2011 at 10:28 AM

(Editor’s note) We welcome consideration of all points of view on the tremendously difficult issue of flood control. In that spirit we will be sending out a few articles in the coming weeks. Below, we are sending out an article on the future of flood control in the lower Mississippi Valley written by Chad Causey, a lawyer in Jonesboro, Arkansas who was formerly chief of staff for former Congressman Marion Berry. This is a thoughtful article by a knowledgeable, concerned citizen who has devoted a great deal of work, analysis and effort to these difficult issues. We thought many of our Delta partners would be interested in these views after the terrible flooding we faced earlier this year.

We welcome different points of view, so if anyone else with knowledge and experience on these issues would like to send us an analysis with different conclusions, we could send out that article as well. In the near future we plan to send out a message based on the views of the Dutch ambassador to the United States, expressing great sympathy for the risks of flooding in the Delta. Approximately 60% of the Netherlands is at or below sea level and 70% of Dutch gross domestic product is produced in areas under threat of water, so flood control is tremendously important for them just as it is for us.

Generally, most of our partners in the Delta thought that while there should be improvements in the flood control system, nevertheless in most cases the levees held. For example, Desha County Judge Mark McElroy said the levees in his area held up well, especially considering the massive amount of water in the flood of 2011.

Mr. Causey has a thoughtful analysis of the situation. These are controversial issues and not everybody will agree with all his points, but this is clearly a meritorious statement of one point of view.

Again, we emphasize that other well-informed points of view are welcome. We believe Mr. Causey’s point of view is worthwhile and deserves consideration by the regional coalition. Thanks–Lee Powell, MDGC


C. Chad Causey, Attorney at Womack, Landis, Phelps and McNeill and Former Chief of Staff for Congressman Marion Berry – First Congressional District of Arkansas.

As the waters of the 2011 Flood begin to recede, the resulting devastation is painfully apparent. The Mississippi River Watershed drains everything from the Appalachians to the Rockies and it all funnels right down the Lower Mississippi Valley. Thousands were displaced from their homes, millions of acres of farmland were inundated and many communities will take months, if not years, to resume normal life. Please continue to pray for and help our neighbors in need.

Comments in a May 18th article from the USA Today suggested that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) – Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (MRT), a system of levees and flood control measures from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to the Gulf of Mexico commissioned and constructed in the years after the Great Flood of 1927, is a flawed design, causing damage beyond what would occur with an alternative plan. That alternative, promoted in the above article by the executive director of the Association of State Flood Plain Managers as well as a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation, advocates for abandoning farmland, against repairing levees and would result in uprooting rural communities and reverting much of the Mississippi Delta, back into the vast timber swampland it was in the early 1800‘s.

Their argument for busting levees and moving towns doesn’t hold water, literally. They argue that the levees, backwaters and spillway systems designed to protect millions of homes and millions of acres accelerate high volumes of water, leading to more damage than what would occur without these protections. They want the river to ebb and flow lazily throughout the delta on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. They are wrong.

During the height of flooding in the 1927 Flood, the Mississippi River stretched 80 miles wide and 70 feet deep at some points across the lower valley. The water didn’t fully recede for more than 150 days. As many as 1,000 people lost their lives and damage estimates reached $1 billion (1/3 the size of the entire federal budget in 1927).

Congress responded to this National tragedy with the 1928 Flood Control Act. As a result, the MRT was constructed in the late 1920‘s and 1930‘s. This engineering marvel protects an estimated $200 billion in assets and millions of Americans. Over 41% percent of every drop of rain and every melted snowflake in the entire lower 48 states (and even part of Canada) runs right by our front doors on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. And for more than 80 years, the MRT has served its purpose. This system has never failed and it didn’t fail this time. The foundation of flood control in the Lower Mississippi Valley is sound.

The weaknesses we must address are two-fold: one, the patchwork of flood protection measures for communities along eastern Arkansas waterways are in need of maintenance and improvement; and two, after withstanding the biggest flood since 1937, the MRT needs maintenance now more than ever.

First, The White River left its banks from Oil trough to St. Charles this year, leaving farmland underwater every mile. The Black River breached levees in Pocahontas, flooding neighborhoods and thousands of acres of farmland. The Cache River left its banks, inundating several home around Grubbs and thousands more acres of farmland. It is no secret the important role Agriculture plays in Arkansas’s economy and it has taken a hit. Losses are estimated at $500 million to the agricultural economy in Arkansas alone.

With targeted improvements, we can be better prepared the next time high water comes our way. We can improve some flood control structures to better protect communities like Pocahontas and others along the White and Black Rivers. We should clean out the Cache River drift now, providing relief from future pressure on farmers and the Grubbs community. In addition, the Corps should reconsider lake management plans in order to allow the Corps greater flexibility to release water outside of the growing season – increase capacity during heavy rainfall events in the spring and fall.

Second, as the water recedes from the MRT levees along the Mississippi River, they are battered and bruised, but they are still intact. Hundreds of miles of levees must be rehabilitated, relief wells repaired and rip-rap replaced. Now is not the time to walk away from the investment made to provide security for millions of Americans and more than $200 billion in assets. These assets include homes, businesses, farms and most importantly, a way of life.

Instead of pursuing the untenable position of vacating this way of life, or ignoring the fact that we can always improve, we should be working together to improve flood control through a more comprehensive system, ensuring the levee system throughout Arkansas and the Lower Valley is well-maintained - ready to face the high water we know will come again. We should look to the St. Francis Levee District as a model for comprehensive and successful flood control.

The State Association of Flood Plain Managers and the National Wildlife Federation should come back to reality, try being a part of a realistic solution to improve flood control or stay out of the flood fight. We should never forget what those levees are there for. We may sometimes go years without thinking about it, but when the water rises again, and it will, those levees will be there, as long as we maintain them.