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Midwest flooding: What's at stake in plan to blast open Missouri levee

A judge on Friday gave the go-ahead to the US Army Corps of Engineers to blow an opening into a Missouri levee. Advocates say it's the best way to prevent worse flooding downriver, but residents could be affected.

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The Missouri plan

Spring snowmelt from record winter snows in the northern US are coursing down the Mississippi, while the storm system that devastated the South brought heavy rain to an already saturated Ohio Valley. This is feeding into the Ohio River, which meets the Mississippi at Cairo.

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Ordinarily, during peak flows, the Ohio River – which also receives flow from the Tennessee River – sends roughly 10 times more water into the Mississippi River than the Mississippi above the junction provides. This year's snowmelt and storms have only added to that influx.

At the center of the debate is the Bird Point–New Madrid Floodway, a 130,000 acre patch of farmed river bottom designed as a flood-control tool. The floodway is one of three located along the lower Mississippi river. They were established after a Mississippi flood in 1927 killed nearly 250 people across 10 states, an acknowledgment that under severe conditions, levees alone were unlikely to keep floodwaters at manageable levels.

The floodway is flood-plain land bounded by two levees that form essentially a giant tub, with an open outlet at the southern end. Already, rising floodwaters near New Madrid have started to back into the tub from its "drain," according to residents.

When floodwaters rise too high, threatening to overtop levees protecting cities and towns upstream and downstream, the Mississippi River Commission has the authority to ask the corps to use explosives to open an inlet to the tub on its northernmost end. Floodwaters are forecast exceed levels reached during the 1927 flood and another devastating flood 10 years later.

The 130,000 acres that would be affected by the decision fall within Missouri, whose attorney general filed suit in federal court earlier this week as the Corps began to move barges into position to prepare and install the explosives. His counterparts from Illinois and Tennessee, with riverside cities threatened if floodwaters rise to the forecast levels, intervened on behalf of the Corps.

During a meeting Wednesday, the head of the Mississippi River Commission, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, told unhappy residents who live inside the floodway that the levee system at Birds Point has never seen the amount of pressure floodwaters are putting on it, according to local press reports of the meeting. Those conditions are forecast to linger for up to 10 days. The floodway is home to some 200 people.


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