Morganza – too late, still too little?

Morganza is slowing being opened. The projected crests  downstream have been revised, but as the previous post illustrates, the projected crests still leave very high water from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. We can debate (and will) the Corps decision to delay opening Morganza in hopes it could protect the floodway. Now that the floodway is in use, there is no reason to keep the river levels so high. Morganza could be fully opened. This would reduce the down river levels and flush the flood waters out of the lower river faster, rather than letting high water persist well into June.

Every day the river is this high, the levees get soggier and weaker, and more water pass under the levees. When the river is very high, navigation is also slowed and is more difficult. This increases the shipping losses. It also increases the chance that a navigation accident will break a stressed levee. Over the weekend, a string of barges broke loose and two barges struck the old Highway 190 bridge in downtown Baton Rouge. Fortunately, the bridge does not appear to be damaged. But those barges could also have hit the levee, and since the water is so high, such a hit would have a higher chance of breaking through the levee and letting water into downtown. The longer the Corps leaves the downriver areas with high water levels, the greater the change of a catastrophic levee failure.  The longer the Corps keeps the river in flood, the great the chance of more upstream rain piling into the existing flood, and the higher the risk of the river system still being loaded with an early season hurricane.

Water Levels in South Lousiana

The state has closed access to the levees all along the Mississippi. This makes getting pictures of the water level more difficult.

This was taken on the West Levee opposite the old ferry landing in St. Francisville, LA. This is a very big, tall levee. The water is about 15 feet deep on one side, and is at least ten feet from the top of the levee. It will rise a bit more with current projections, perhaps a couple more feet. Normally, there would be dry land on both sides of the levee.




This is downtown Baton Rouge. Notice the water level in relation to the top of the walkway. The walkway is at at the height of the top of the levee, and water is only 3-4 below it. When this picture was taken, 14 May, the river was at 44 feet in Baton Rouge. It was originally projected to crest at 47.5 feet, before the decision was made to open Morganza. Even at the new projected crest of 45 feet, the levees are under very high stress, at some points water is pushing into downtown parking lots on the river.

This picture was taken downtown New Orleans on 15 May. Look at the water level in relation to the walkway on the top of the levee. As with Baton Rouge, there is very little freeboard. The river is about 17 feet in this picture, and was originally projected to crest at 19 feet.

Playing Politics with Morganza?

Took a drive up to the Old River Control Structure and the Morganza Spillway on the 12th of May. I was curious about what is keeping the Corps from opening the spillway until the flow hits 1.5 M CFS. One reason would be that until the river gets to that level, the water is not high enough for the spillway to work. I found that the water is high enough, so that we have to think about the politics.

While the Corps was able to get development easements as well as flowage  easements over most of the floodway, it is not clear that these have been enforced. The floodway also endangers Morgan City, which sits at the end of the Atchafalaya river, were the floodway necks down and the water has to flow out into the gulf through a main and minor branch of the river. (For those who are not local, tt is pronounced A CHAF A LIE A – short As.) The Corps trigger point is 1.5 million CFS at Red River Landing, just above the control structure, not the water heights downstream. How that flow corresponds to downstream heights depends on a lot of factors that change through time. The Corps has not publically addressed why it is sticking to the 1.5 MCFS, which was determined when the structures were built. It might have been the right number then, but now it results in very (record) high water downstream – that, or the flow is actually higher and the Corps have not figured it out.

The water level is below the levee tops, but it is well up the side of the levees. The projected crests before Morganza will be opened is pretty close to the tops of the levees. This puts a lot of pressure on the levees and pushes a lot of water under the levees. This water flows through sand boils, which are old stream beds which were covered when the levees were built. The water also flows through the saturated ground. The river is deep in many places and the water spreads out through the soil for a long distance. The longer the water level is high, the more water the clay in the levee absorbs, which weakens the levee. Clay levees do not melt away as did the sand levees on the middle Mississippi which broke during the 1993 flood. But when they develop a crack (crevasse), it erodes quickly and is difficult to plug during high water. In New Orleans, most of the city is below sea level and trapped within flood control levees. A levee break could rapidly put enough water into the city to flood many areas as deep as Katrina, and at least as fast. It would be worse because the water would be flowing through the high ground that was not flooded during Katrina. This might be the French Quarter, or the Ochsner medical center, or other high value areas that escaped Katrina damage.

The advantage to the Corps in putting these areas at unnecessary risk is that it will mute criticism when the spillway is opened and floodway is flooded, displacing people and destroying crops, and perhaps flooding Morgan City. Ironically, it is not a tradeoff – as the Corp’s maps show, if the spillway is not opened, it will be overtopped, as will other levees allowing water into the floodway. If the Corps opened all the relief valves early, protecting the levees downstream in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, it would be accused of not needing to open the spillway – unless the Corps creates a threat downstream, no one in the floodway would accept that there would have been a threat. (I have discussed this in my smallpox paper – politically, you do not want to roll out the smallpox vaccine until there are enough deaths to really scare people. Then no one will second guess you when there are serious vaccine complications. Do it early, stop the outbreak, and all people will see are the complications.)

The down side to the “scare them downstream strategy” (and the smallpox slow reaction strategy) is that if you guess wrong, it is catastrophic. The politicians in Baton Rouge and New Orleans are reassuring the population that the levees are perfect and that there is no risk. This means no evacuations, no thinking about what you would do if there was a break. Lower Mississippi levees are much better than hurricane levees, and much less susceptible to failure. Among other reasons, they are maintained by the Corps, while New Orleans levees were (not) maintained by the local levee boards. But there are probably 200 miles of levees between the Old River Control Structure and New Orleans. It is hard to assure that every mile is perfect. It is also impossible to keep materials and crews to plug a leak along the whole area. It would take a lot of time to get folks in place to repair a break, enough time to do real damage, and perhaps long enough for the levee to break down to the point where it cannot be repaired during high water.

An additional downside is the uncertainty for the people in the spillway. The Corps’ policy of only announcing a decision to open the spillway at the last minute leaves persons in the spillway uncertain whether they will need to evacuate. and when they need to be gone. The Corps predicted the record crests in Baton Rouge and New Orleans weeks ago. If the policy was to prevent levees downstream from being subjected to dangerous loads, the Corps could have announced that the spillway would be opened early in May. This would have given more evacuation time and would also have saved Baton Rouge and New Orleans from being exposed to unnecessary catastrophic risk.  It would also have allowed the gradual fill time necessary to protect wildlife without extending the high risk levels downstream.


NAS Climate Change Project

Convened by the National Research Council in response to a request from Congress (P.L. 110-161), America’s Climate Choices is a suite of five coordinated activities designed to study the serious and sweeping issues associated with global climate change, including the science and technology challenges involved, and to provide advice on the most effective steps and most promising strategies that can be taken to respond.

NAS Climate Change Project – original link

America’s Climate Choices

Advancing the Science of Climate Change

Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change

Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change

Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change


Climate Change and Polar Ecosystems

“The polar regions are experiencing rapid changes in climate. These changes are causing observable ecological impacts of various types and degrees of severity at all ecosystem levels, including society. Even larger changes and more significant impacts are anticipated. As species respond to changing environments over time, their interactions with the physical world and other organisms can also change. This chain of interactions can trigger cascades of impacts throughout entire ecosystems. Evaluating the interrelated physical, chemical, biological, and societal components of polar ecosystems is essential to understanding their vulnerability and resilience to climate forcing.”

Frontiers in Understanding Climate Change and Polar Ecosystems: Summary of a Workshop Committee for the Workshop on Frontiers in Understanding Climate Change and Polar Ecosystems; National Research Council, NAP (2011)

Ocean Rise in New York State

New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force, Report to the Legislature, December 2010.

“New York State’s extensive ocean coastline has places that we know, that we remember and that have shaped us in some way. The state’s coastline includes many notable locations—Montauk Point, Coney Island, Robert Moses State Park, Battery Park and the Hudson River’s shores from New York City to the federal dam at Troy. More than 60 percent of New Yorkers live in homes on or near these waterfront areas. Each shoreline area is unique and part of the essence of New York. But these places will change as sea level rises, and the differences will become more obvious as the sea continues to rise to levels never experienced by humans. A result of the world’s changing climate, a rising sea will alter more than just the coastline. The entire state will feel the effects as residents and a significant amount of the landscape are affected. These areas are diverse and interconnected and share New York’s rich agriculture, commercial, economic and environmental history and resources.

“The communities along New York State’s coastline, including their structures, their residents, their environment and the surrounding natural resources, are products of decisions made over the course of many years. These decisions shaped decades of investment, development and conservation. While the extent of the impacts to coastal communities from a rising sea are not fully known, even the most conservative projections make clear that there will be dramatic changes in this century. Thus, how coastal communities and our state address this collective challenge is important to today’s decision makers. The responses needed to protect communities from the threat posed by sea level rise will take time, and now that the challenges are better understood, government is obligated to protect its citizens while there is time to do so effectively. New York must focus on the smart use of limited resources to address the impacts associated with sea level rise.

The surge barrier alternative.

The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project

The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project:Controlling the Flow – a description of the operation of the lower Mississippi flood control plan. (accessed May 8, 2011)

This is the Army Corps of Engineers explanation of the Mississippi River flood control system and how it would be used to control a flood. It details the the use of the floodways and the river flow levels that will trigger their use. The key information for this flood is that up to 1,500,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) can be diverted into the Morganza/Achafalaya floodway. At the other end, 1,200,000 will flow out at through the Achafalaya River at Morgan City and 300,000 through the Wax Lake outlet of the Achafalaya river.

Mississippi River Flood of 2011

At least as to river heights, the Flood of 2011 may be second or third largest Mississippi River Flood in modern times. Total volume of the flood is hard to compare because the river and the tributaries are more constrained than in the past. Water in a leveed river will be much higher than in a river without levees where it can spread out horizontally.

Projected flood heights – NOAA – Corps’ Morganza floodway projections

Satellite images of the floods

Historical flood levels


Flood Risk from Opening the Morganza Floodway

Estimated Inundation Spring 2011 Flood Date: 06 May 2011 – Version 1, 06 May 2011 (EGIS Map ID No. 11-051-009)

Floodway into the Atchafalaya Basin saves New Orleans: Oliver Houck

“The Mississippi River is rising, the Army Corps of Engineers has just blown a controversial floodway levee north of Cairo, Ill., and the surge is coming downstream.

New Orleans will be safe, however, not because of its high river levees, which could be challenged if 2 million cubic feet per second swirl by at 8 miles an hour, chewing on the banks, even with a few feet of freeboard. Rather, the city is safe because of another floodway to the west, the Atchafalaya, that can take half the Mississippi’s highest flows and funnel them safely to the Gulf.

We also are safe because we have the rights to use this floodway, free and clear. This was not always the case. In fact, it became the case only after a long fight that ran for nearly 20 years over the Atchafalaya basin…

Read the rest of this editorial by Professor Oliver Houck of the Tulane Law School.

Mississippi Rising – The View from Baton Rouge

These pictures were taken on the levee at the intersection River Road and Stadium Drive in Baton Rouge. The normal river channel is out near the barges. Flood stage (where the river would top the banks if there was no levee) is 35 feet.

6 May 2011 – River stage 37.7 feet

5 May 2011 – River Stage 37 Feet

Climate Change and the National Flood Insurance Program – 1991

FEMA, Projected Impact of Relative Sea Level Rise on the National Flood Insurance Program, October 1991.

This study of the impact of relative sea level rise on the National Flood Insurance Program was authorized by Congress and signed into law on November 3, 1989. The requirements of this study as specified by the legislation are as follows:

SEC. 5. Sea Level Rise Study

The Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency shall conduct a study to determine the impact of relative sea level rise on the flood insurance rate maps. This study shall also project the economic losses associated with estimated sea level rise and aggregate such data for the United States as a whole and by region1. The Director shall report the results of this study to the Congress not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act. Funds for such study shall be made available from amounts appropriated under section 1376(c) of the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968.