A quarter-century after the record-setting Mississippi River flood of 1993, a namesake towboat is coming downriver for the annual ritual of debating the river’s future.
The Mississippi River Commission’s traditional low water inspection tour begins Monday, starting with a 9 a.m. public meeting on board the 241’x58’x8’, 6,300-hp towboat Mississippi tied up at the Caruthersville, Mo., city front on the river.
Next stops are Aug. 21 at the Beale Street landing in Memphis, Tenn., at 9 a.m.; Aug. 22 at 12 noon at the Vicksburg, Miss., river front; and winding up Aug 24 at 9 a.m. in Morgan City, La., at the Port Commission dock.
Employed for most of the year in support of the Corps of Engineers revetment building operations, the Mississippi lends its internal spaciousness to the annual inspection trips, when local communities and river interests make their cases to the river commission and the Corps of Engineers.
“A river towboat will push as many as fifty barges at one time. What this towboat pushes is the program of the Corps,” author John McPhee recounted of the low water tour in “Atchafalaya,” his 1987 account in the New Yorker magazine of the agency’s efforts to control the Mississippi River flow.
Now 30 years on, new flavors of those debates are on the menu.
A recent study from Louisiana State University identified a buildup of sediment on the river bottom near the Old River control structure, which serves as a safety valve to relieve high water to flow into the Atchafalaya basin. That along with emergent sandbars between Old River and Vicksburg could add more resistance to water in a future flood and pressure the river to make a long-feared jump over its western bank.
Closer to the river’s outlet, pressure is building between planning for new diversions, to bleed river flow and its sediments and build new wetlands along Louisiana’s eroding coast, and oyster growers and fishermen threatened by the impact of new freshwater flows.
In partnership with the Corps, the state Coastal Protection Restoration Authority is moving ahead with plans for the $1.4 billion Mid-Barataria Diversion, first in a series of engineered openings in the levees to deliver sediment and rebuild wetlands.
Along with oystermen and fishermen, the diversion plan disturbs advocates for protecting marine mammals. Barataria Bay dolphins, after long suffering effects from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, could be affected by fresh water flows and sediment.
To expedite planning, the National Marine Fisheries Service has issued an exemption from requiring more studies under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But without progress soon on the diversions, scientists say, there will not be anything left to protect in a few more decades.