“One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver — not aloud, but to himself — that ten thousand River Commissions, with the minds of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.”
— Mark Twain, “Life on the Mississippi”
Mark Twain’s wisdom applies equally to the Mississippi’s cousin, the Missouri, and many of the hundreds of streams and rivers that feed the world’s fifth largest river drainage basin.
The big rivers have magnified nature’s fury for eons as saturated soil, heavy snow and epic rain events combined to vastly overwhelm the river system’s capacity.
The greatest of the floods on the Missouri and Mississippi are recorded in history for the years 1844, 1851, 1927, 1951, 1993, and 2011. Record rainfall and runoff this spring has already set records and overwhelmed the massive drainage basin that covers all or part of 32 states and two Canadian provinces.
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, with 27,000 square miles inundated up to a depth of 30 feet. The destruction and displacement that followed compelled the federal government to undertake the construction of one of the world’s most ambitious engineering feats. The U.S. Corps of Engineers now oversees the levees, locks, dams and reservoirs along the 2,341 miles of the Missouri and 2,250 miles of the Mississippi and hundreds of additional miles of feeder rivers and streams.
Even so, the 1951 flood was the second biggest in terms of cubic feet/second discharge at 573,000 cubic feet/second. The 1993 flood was the highest of any of the three greatest floods but had the lowest discharge (541,000 cfs).
Today the Corps of Engineers manages the river ecosystem through the Master Manual, a 432-page document that defines eight congressionally authorized purposes: flood control, river navigation, hydroelectric power, irrigation, water supply, water quality, recreation, and fish and wildlife (including preservation of endangered species). Though Congress authorized flood control and navigation as the dominant focus of management, the Corps has from time to time been forced to place the preservation of endangered riparian species ahead of flood control.
The work of the Corps of Engineers stands as remarkable in terms of the meaningful, positive impact rendered on all aspects of its mission and the broader benefits to the local, state and national economy.
Nonetheless, the channelization of the river system and reduction of natural wetland storage capacity in the lower river and delta areas such as the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana are primary reasons modern-day floods are so destructive and long lived.
The Corps of Engineers is once again the lightning rod for criticism from those who have suffered the greatest harm. The great flood of 2019 got its footing back in the late fall and winter when the ground became saturated. Flooding in some parts of the Midwest has now surpassed 100 days and high water releases will continue through the summer.
The federal government can only do so much to protect those affected by river surges. The big reservoirs on the upper Missouri provide only limited relief. Continued development in the historic floodplains of the Mississippi Basin only serve the inevitability of future great floods and more widespread destruction. The way forward must include restoration of natural wetlands and catch basins along the lower river system.
As Mark Twain, the riverboat pilot and student of the river, so eloquently observed in 1883, the great river cannot be tamed by man.