Corps of Engineers readies to breach Birds Point levee to lower river levels

Tuesday, April 26, 2011
A Ford pick-up truck drives through floodwaters on State Highway EE near Chaffee, Mo. Monday, April 25, 2011. (Laura Simon)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Memphis District will meet today with the Mississippi River Commission to decide whether to intentionally breach the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, flooding more than 100,000 acres of land in Mississippi County and lowering water levels upstream on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

The floodway, near Mississippi and New Madrid counties, is about 35 miles long and was created in 1928, according to the corps' website. The last time it was activated was in 1937 when the levee was naturally breached and the corps then opened it with explosives, according to Southeast Missourian archives.

The decision to intentionally breach the levee will be made after a 1 p.m. meeting, a public information officer said late Monday.

"No decision has been made about loading the barges or heading north; we are still monitoring," the corps said. The Mississippi River Commission president makes the final decision.

In a statement released Monday afternoon, Gov. Jay Nixon expressed his concern about the possible breach, calling the action inappropriate.

"Intentionally breaching this levee would affect hundreds of families and pour a tremendous amount of water into 130,000 acres of prime farmland," Nixon said in the release.

In activating the floodway, the corps would use explosives to breach the levee, which would flood the thousands of acres of farmland. The breach would take pressure off the levee protecting Cairo, Ill., which is expected to crest at a record 61 feet May 3. At 8 p.m. Monday, the Ohio River measured just over 55 feet.

If the Mississippi River Commission decided to explode the levee at Birds Point, it prepares for the breach until the river hits 60 feet, according to the Memphis District's website. Water would spill over the levee at 62 feet.

"I think that almost all the farmers that have land in the spillway would rather have that two and a half foot cushion. Hopefully, it doesn't reach that height," said Clay Shelby, a farmer who owns around 800 acres in the spillway.

John Moreton, a farmer who owns land around Wyatt, Mo., and near the area that may get flooded, said the intentional breach won't make any difference in the river levels at Cairo.

"We understand that the corps thinks the breaching our levee would help the city of Cairo, but the city of Cairo has a higher levee than our outside levee," Moreton said. "We don't want residents hurt, but if it's not going to help the people in Cairo, we really don't want them to explode our levee."

Shelby, who also manages around 2,000 acres for Shelby Farms, said he and many other farmers are concerned about the aftermath of breaching the levee. They'd expect the water to fill ditches and upon exiting around New Madrid would leave piles of sand and a "big mess."

"It would take millions of dollars to repair the ditches alone," Shelby said. "This is scary for all of us."

The Corps of Engineers Memphis District increased its flood-fighting response efforts Sunday, establishing field offices in Cape Girardeau and Dyersburg, Tenn. Additional personnel were assigned to the offices and more corps staff are monitoring flood works as Ohio and Mississippi River levels rise.


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