The Eighth Line, and Floods
A place where a great river lives;
Where most of our crawfish used to come from;
Where commercial fishermen make a living;
A place of memories for a lot of people;
A home for ghost stories;
A place of great living complexity;
A controlled spillway;
That is the eighth line of “Atchafalaya Is”. How appropriate that it is time for the eighth line and here comes the high water. This is the highest water since we moved to the river eight years ago. And the spillway concept is in use.
There have been many seasons of high water on the Mississippi, and hence the Atchafalaya. Looking back at the records, there seems to have been a major flood about every ten years. That was tragic for those who lived along the rivers but there weren’t many who did, and the rising water was often an expected thing. And anyway, there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. You just tried to live on the highest land you could, knowing that the river would come to find you, eventually.
In 1927, one of these big periodic floods came. By this time there were a lot people living in low areas, and there was a lot of potential loss to lives and property. And there was a great loss. It was a disaster in human terms, and after the disaster, the federal government had the resolve to try to do something about future floods. Congress passed the laws that provided for the construction of levees to contain the floodwater in the future. This included levees along the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya too. And the Corps of Engineers was there to do the job. But what was to be the role of the Atchafalaya? It was to be a controlled conduit to direct water spilled from the Mississippi out to the Gulf of Mexico, and they called it a spillway, the Atchafalaya Spillway. Spill – like when some liquid is handled carelessly. Spillway – when something carelessly handled is done so in a specific way. Just wordplay, that.
The main levees in the Basin were finished in the mid to late 1930s. The biggest test of the levee system came in 1972, during my first year as a fulltime commercial fisherman. I can still see that water roaring down (actually not roaring) the main Atchafalaya channel and I’m wondering if I have the ability to learn how to cope with that, I mean out there in it. The main levee at Myette Point was about 30 feet high and the water was within two feet of the top. You could put your hand against the levee and feel it vibrating. I’m not sure what was causing the vibration except maybe just the tremendous pressure against the levee. You could walk around on the flat land outside the levee and it would quake in places. It would jiggle like jello sometimes. That is a weird thing to see. Most everyone knows about what nearly happened to the Old River Control Structure that year. It almost failed at the peak of the flood, and if it had we would not be living here now. The Mississippi would have cut a new channel south to the Gulf and Butte La Rose would not be. The Corps of Engineers believes that they have strengthened the control structure so that the thing that almost happened cannot. Because we like to live here, our money is on the COE. The Butte La Rose gauge registered about 28 feet in 1972, and that’s the highest it’s been since 1927. It actually didn’t get that high in 1927. There were no levees to contain the water then, so it just spread out and flooded the surrounding countryside. It went out, not up.
So the spillway idea seems to be working. This spilled, carelessly handled liquid does find its way to the Gulf. But it leaves a legacy of silt that has transformed a huge lake (aptly called Grand) into massive sandbars that have generated much public land that was waterbottom before. I guess you just have to decide which you prefer – land or water – to determine whether you think this flood control has come at an acceptable price.
The pics here show the water last summer during a falling river at about a five foot stage, and at the present levels of 16 to 19 feet. Our dock is OK because it floats, but the deck is submerged about a foot and turning into a sandbar of its own due to silt deposition. The crest is currently predicted to be about 22 feet so we may get another three feet before the river starts to fall. Not sure about that. I had to build some “bumpers” onto the outside of the deck so that the dock would not float over the railing if the water gets that high. They may not be needed, but if they are it will be too late to do it then.
The river is at 18.9 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 19.5 feet by the 14th. The Mississippi and Ohio are not rising above Memphis so it will take additional rain in the Ohio watershed to keep the rise going. Right now it looks like this will crest here in a week or so and begin falling. We’ll see.
Rise and Shine, Jim