The Army Corps Of Engineers Plays God

Yesterday’s edition of NPR’s The Takeaway discussed the “devil’s choice” facing the Army Corps of Engineers with regard to opening the Morganza Spillway on the flooding Mississippi River; as Kavanaugh Breazeale, Public Affairs Officer for the Vicksburg District Army Corps of Engineers explains the dilemma:

It is unfortunate that you flood farmlands and timberlands but it benefits the residential areas, that may be affected by high water.

Or as George Sills puts it:

It’s a very tough decision to put water in people’s homes and lives

Senior Meteorologist Jonathan Erdman, Sr. explains at Weather.com:

Morganza Spillway: Flooding Some to Save Many

One additional spillway is designed to be opened only during extreme Mississippi River flood events that threaten to compromise the Old River Control Structure (which, would then allow the swollen Mississippi River to jump to the Atchafalaya River channel).

Upstream from Baton Rouge near the town of Morganza lies the Morganza Spillway. …

Built in 1954, the control structure and floodway have only been put into action once, during the 1973 flood.

Unlike the Bonnet Carre, the decision to open the Morganza Spillway is complicated by its impact on populated areas of the Atchafalaya River Basin. According to a U.S. Army Corps inundation map, various towns and rural areas normally dry would be inundated by at least 5 feet of water upon opening the Morganza Spillway!

This is clearly one of the toughest decisions made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If you don’t open the spillway…

  • You will still have river flooding along the Atchafalaya River, just not nearly as expansive.
  • You risk putting undue pressure on the Old River Control Structure, which may get overwhelmed.
  • This would cause the catastrophic “jumping” of the Mississippi River to the Atchafalaya River Basin, as described earlier.
  • Pressure on levees in Baton Rouge and New Orleans would remain high, if the Old River Control Structure does not fail.

However, if you do open the spillway…

  • There will be widespread inundation of the Atchafalaya Basin.
  • Areas outside of levee protection would be under at least 5 feet of water.
  • Pressure on levees in Baton Rouge and New Orleans would be lower.

Sadly, the choice here may be to open the Morganza floodway, flooding the Atchafalaya Basin to avoid the potential of a more catastrophic re-routing of the Mississippi River.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal put the risk very simply:

“If you were flooded in ’73, you’re likely to get wet again. If you nearly got wet in 1973, you’ll probably get wet this time.”

This is strikingly close to the classic scenario discussed in the Yerushalmi:

ראה אמת המים שוטפת ובאה לתוך שדהו רשאי לפנותן למקום אחר משנכנסו אין רשאי לפנותן למקום אחר1

with the potentially significant difference that the spillway is under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers, a public, ostensibly neutral third party, rather than in the hands of one of the interested parties. For a discussion of the literature surrounding this Yerushalmi, see our Seforim blog essay: Hunted Bears, Cantonists and Nazi Victims.

Update: the Corps has apparently decided to open the Spillway.

  1. בבא קמא פרק ג’ הלכה א []
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2 Responses to The Army Corps Of Engineers Plays God

  1. MiMedinat HaYam says:

    one more fact — the govt (supposedly) has an easement to flood the area if necessary.

    • Yitzhak says:

      Yes, I believe I recall a NPR interviewee claiming that purchasers of property in the area actually sign a document granting the government the right to flood. He said that people generally didn’t worry too much about this, as the right was rarely, if ever, invoked … The obvious Halachic issue here, of course, is אסמכתא.

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