By Alison M. Jones, Director of No Water No Life®
and Professional Photographer
As published by American Rivers in “The River Blog”-April 10, 2014
“But, what about the newly planted corn?
I’ve seen how the Big Muddy can flood a field.”
On a No Water No Life® expedition in the Mississippi Basin last year, I asked that of stewards, US Fish and Wildlife scientists and US Army Corps engineers. Twenty years earlier I visited the middle Mississippi during the Flood of 1993. Since then, the world, Mississippi flood management and I have changed.
Engineers used to say, “The equation for inundation is elevation,” as they raised their levees. Now the USACE promotes “flood risk management” instead of “flood control” because every levee pushes the water onto someone else. The USACE also promotes healthy ecosystems at its National Great Rivers Museum in St Louis.
Even so, American Rivers lists the middle Mississippi as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers ® of 2014 because of a new old-school USACE “flood control” project.. As we all focus on upstream-downstream issues in the face of climate disruption, American Rivers is advocating for floodplain connection, not levees. Perhaps the question isn’t what will happen to young corn in a flood year, but what will happen if we keep building levees?
Why do I, as a New Yorker, care about Missouri’s habitats and communities? As I describe in the following story, my connection to the Mississippi began twenty years ago.
“The Flood of 1993: A Month in Missouri”
I didn’t care about the Midwest Flood of 1993. I knew all about floods. For three December days, my Connecticut home had been under five feet of icy water. Hollywood called it “The Perfect Storm.” I flew to Missouri that steamy July to photograph iconic Midwestern scenes.
I visited Daniel Boone’s homestead, pig farms and craftsmen. But after torrential thunderstorms at a dairy farm and seeing new-mown hay swept off low-lying fields, my adrenaline rose with the river. Singing “I drove my Chevy to the levee,” I arrived in the Creole river town of Ste. Genevieve. But the levee wasn’t dry. Brown water threatened this week’s sandbagged walls, inches from the top; and it seeped out underneath.
This flood was different. Many levees had been constructed since a 1973 flood, upsetting previous prediction models. These added restraints just intensified the Mississippi’s fury. Forecasts were for another week of rain. As herons flew into the storm clouds, my mood of creative elation disappeared.
I saw the grit of people resisting nature, the invincibility of humor,
and the camaraderie of strangers fighting together. Using sandbags and bulldozers, sweating residents and uniformed troops stayed ahead of the river: block by block, inch by inch. Putting my cameras down, I joined in.
“I can’t be here and not sandbag,“ I wrote.
Flying home weeks later, I stared at the “inland sea” below. While photographing levees and Levi’s, cheerleaders and retirees, and the grateful folks of Ste Genevieve, I’d become part of that community. Using Bryce Courtenay’s words, we worked with “one heart, one plan, one determination.” Whether it would happen again or not, that was the Spirit of 1993.
My thoughts, April 2014: The Mississippi rolls on, but we still need to better adapt to its swells and floods. History should have taught us that. American Rivers is trying to do that. As Mark Twain predicted, “The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.”
Read Related Story: Parallels: Mississippi Flood of 1993 and Gulf Oil Spill of 2010
Take Action: Tell the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to abandon the levee project and the Environmental Protection Agency to veto it if the Corps proceeds with this ill-conceived plan.