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Morganza spillway: Flooding farmland to save New Orleans

The US Army of Corps of Engineers has opened the Morganza spillway to prevent the surging Mississippi from endangering New Orleans. But farms and natural habitat will be flooded as a result.

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“Once that breach opens, that can’t be closed,” he says, which would cause worse flooding than the city experienced following Hurricane Katrina.

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The moment the gate opened Saturday afternoon, there was a sense of mourning but also relief.

Minutes earlier, a local radio station played gospel music from the late Mahalia Jackson and also Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” a musical elegy with a chorus – “they’re gonna wash us away” – that likely articulated what many downstream were feeling.

Fish could be seen jumping into the air following the first blast of water. Although the road leading across the floodway was temporarily closed to the public, the levees along the floodway were lined with people who showed up, some with binoculars in hand, to get a look.

“It’s making people feel comfortable again. The water has to go somewhere,” says Ernest Newman, a bus driver from Morganza who walked to a viewing point with his family. “I’m sorry for the farmers.”

Herman Kleinke and his daughter Evelyn, from Columbia, Miss., were already in the area and decided to drive to Morganza to witness an event Ms. Kleinke called “historical.”

“This is something we can tell grandkids,” she says.

Two hours to the east in New Orleans, the anxiety the town had been experiencing since the river started to rise, was starting to subside. After all, this is a town that is surrounded by water that is largely out of sight and often out of mind.

Climbing the levees to watch river levels rise became a common activity these last few days, as was answering phone calls from out-of-town friends and family offering refuge in case the streets started to fill with water.

Larry Lovell, an advertising executive who directed the tourism media center in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, went for a run atop the levees in his neighborhood Saturday morning and says that even though the city had previously witnessed water levels at such a height, it did give him pause. Daily updates about rising river levels had created “Katrina flashback” for him, and for many others here.

'Some sense of relief'

Knowing the Morganza had opened “gives us some sense of relief,” Mr. Lovell says, that “ensures we won’t get to those levels that would get to that level of catastrophic failure.”

“We know we can deal with this, but not making us deal with the highest level of risk in the shortest period of time gives me a level of comfort,” he says.

Besides its obvious use for diverting disaster from the city’s two largest metropolitan areas, the Morganza’s opening is also significant from an engineering perspective as it represents the first time that all three floodways built following the 1927 flood were in operation at the same time. Besides the Bonnet Carre, the Birds Point floodway in Missouri was opened earlier this month.

For those involved in flood management policy at the federal and state level, what happens over the new few weeks is critical in determining the effectiveness of the floodways.

Shana Udvardi, a director at American Rivers, an advocacy organization in Washington, says that the Corps should invest in developing alternate systems, such as release valves along the river and its tributaries that could serve dual purposes: Help farmers store water on wetlands for agricultural use while slowing down water during flooding season.

“Instead of waiting for the flood to come to us, hopefully we can get at reducing flood risk,” Ms. Udvardi says. “We are really relying on outdated approaches. The levees should really be the last line of defense than the only one.”

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