This was one headline I didn't want to see: "New floodway option needs study."
Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers believes that the agency should consider re-engineering parts of the Mississippi River flood protection system. This might require constructing a new floodway.
Oh boy, here we go again. The Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway has been the source of much drama, misery, and litigation over the years, especially during the Flood of 1937.
After seeing the badlands that have been carved in the floodway, I wouldn't want to wish the same kind of destruction on anyone else. And yet such a spectacle could be coming to a floodplain near you.
It might even come as close as Southern Illinois. During the Flood of 1937, water from the Ohio River overflowed into the Cache River valley, creating an "accidental" floodway that diverted some of the water away from Cairo.
If this diversion had not occured, it's possible that the Ohio River may have overtopped the Cairo floodwall, despite the explosion of the Bird's Point levee.
The New Madrid floodway was activated on Jan. 25, 1937, causing the river to drop from 58.6 feet to 57.9 feet on the Cairo gauge. But then the Ohio River started to go back up, inching perilously close to the top of the Cairo floodwall. The wall only reached 60 feet, although an extra 3 feet of material had been temporarily added to the top.
A wire story from Jan. 29 reported that a "party of engineers and workers was dispatched to Golconda, 75 miles upstream from Cairo, to attempt to divert some of the flood into the Cache River basin."
The next day, the Pittsburgh Press reported, "The Ohio River backed into a small stream at Golconda Gap, north of here, and poured into Cache River. The Cache carried its swelling load through a valley, under the big fill bridge and into the Mississippi 15 miles north of Cairo."
Engineers, according to the story, believed that the Cache River was diverting 100,000 cubic feet per second of water. Would that be enough to save Cairo? The story continued, "The question was whether the Cache would grind out a new river bed to carry more than its present load, and relieve the load at Cairo..."
The overflow continued for several days. According to the Monthly Weather Review for Feb. 1937:
On United States Highway 45, about midway between Vienna and Metropolis, Ill., it was noted that the water flowed over the highway at a depth of about 5 feet for more than a mile; the current in this particular section was described by natives as being too swift to navigate by boat, and that the condition did not last just a day, but continued for practically the entire duration of the flow through that section.
Luckily, the Mississippi River was rather low at the time, allowing the excess water from the Cache River to easily drain into it. By Feb. 4, the Ohio River had finally crested at 59.6 feet at Cairo, keeping the river just below the top of the main floodwall and preventing a test of the temporary reinforcements.
It's hard to say whether the Cache River diversion was instrumental in saving Cairo, although it certainly helped. The downside, of course, is that the overflow caused extensive flooding at Ullin, Karnak, and other Southern Illinois towns.
The gap near Golconda has since been closed by a levee, denying the use of the Cache River basin as a floodway.
But with the Corps of Engineers now interested in new solutions for extreme flooding, this "accidental" floodway might be back on the table. They could install gates near Golconda and build levees to funnel the overflow water into the Mississippi River northwest of Cairo.
Not that I would endorse such a plan -- it would wipe out considerable acreage across Southern Illinois. It would be incredibly difficult and expensive. But there would be a delicious irony in such a proposal.
Throughout this year's flood, Illinois leaders have been very vocal about the need to sacrifice farmland in Missouri to save Cairo and other areas. It's only farmland, they keep saying. It's part of the natural floodplain and should be allowed to flood, they've argued.
But what if the shoe was on the other foot? Would Illinois politicians have a change of heart if the land to be sacrificed was in Illinois? After all, the same arguments in favor of operating the New Madrid Floodway would apply to the Cache River valley.
It would be quite a pickle. Such a scheme will probably never happen, but if the Corps of Engineers does move in this direction, then grab some popcorn and enjoy the political fireworks.