Corps of Engineers warns of possible river flooding in Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Unseasonably high river levels have created worry among farmers and government officials about the possibility of renewed flooding in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

Rain has pelted the area for two days, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue an advisory of a "significant risk" of flooding for the near future.

"We're just asking people to really watch things and to be aware," corps spokesman Jim Pogue said. "Right now, it looks like we're going to keep things in our control."

Weather systems have dumped 3 1/4 inches of rain on the area in recent days, the National Weather Service said. In Cairo, Ill., the river gauge stood at 42.7 feet at 1 p.m. Monday and was expected to crest at 44 feet by midweek, with flood stage at 40 feet.

The corps -- which blasted three holes in the levee on May 2 to reduce floodwaters -- has tried to work quickly to repair those breaches, Pogue said. The two lower breaches, near Seven Mile Island and Donaldson Point conservation areas, have been raised to a protection level of 55 feet on the Cairo gauge, Pogue said.

The levee's protection level before the May blast was 62.5 feet.

The upper crevasse, the one at Birds Point, has only been raised to 51 feet and the corps had made some progress, about 15 percent, toward 55 feet, Pogue said. The rain has suspended work at Birds Point for now, Pogue said, with the potential of work stopping until spring.

The corps will monitor the weather for the next several days, he said, before making a decision.

If the corps decides to stop work until warmer weather, he said, corps crews will install large collapsible wire mesh containers with heavy-duty fabric liners filled with sand, sand bags and plastic sheeting at the Birds Point breach.

These materials can be used to quickly raise the levee height and provide temporary protection to 55 feet, Pogue said. To date, the corps has spent more than $15 million to repair the damage its actions caused in May.

"It's really going to be a day-by-day thing until we know what we're going to do next," Pogue said.

That's a few more days of worry for some. Mississippi County Presiding Commissioner Carlin Bennett said the rising waters have caused some unease among farmers who are still picking up the pieces of the intentional flooding caused by the corps this spring.

Primarily, the worry centers on the upper breach near Birds Point, which only has protection up to 51 feet, Bennett said. While the rains were expected to subside by today, the strong La Nina weather pattern is expected to continue to dump water to the Lower Mississippi River Valley along with the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland river basins for the next few weeks.

"All of that water comes right down here," Bennett said.

'Naked dirt'

Also, the partially rebuilt levee is untested, he said. The replaced dirt has yet to be packed or seeded. Bennett said he worries that it will erode much more easily than the levee before the blast.

"It's basically naked dirt," he said. "If there's significant wind and wave action, how long do you think that levee is going to last? It's going to be a mud pie in a very short period of time. This was one of the best levees in the world before they blew it. Now it's weakened at those points."

Any flooding could compromise beans that still need to be harvested, said Anthony Ohmes, an agronomy specialist at the University of Missouri Extension Office for Mississippi County. The unharvested beans were planted late in the growing season because of this spring's flooding. Ohmes said he was unsure how many acres have not been harvested but thought the number wasn't substantial.

On Friday and Saturday, farmers worked diligently to harvest mature beans because the days were the first dry and relatively warm ones in a few weeks, Ohmes said.

In addition to beans, winter wheat could be affected, Ohmes said. The wheat serves as a cover crop, holding soil in place and protecting it from wind and water during the winter. The wheat can withstand being submerged in water at certain temperatures, Ohmes said, but if underwater for an extended period, the wheat will go into anaerobic shock.

Regardless of the minimal damage that could be done to crops, Wyatt, Mo., farmer Steve Wright is still frightened by the prospect of more flooding. Wright manages almost 1,200 acres of land near the floodway and lost 160 acres of wheat just half a mile from the first breach site, a crop that would have yielded more than $100,000.

"Oh yeah, it's got us real scared again," Wright said.

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

psullivan@semissourian.com

388-3635

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