Crest forecast rises to 49.3 feet; crops in trouble|[04/09/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Another third of a foot of water was added to the crest forecast at Vicksburg this morning where a major employer laid off most of its 1,300-person work force and indications for crops in the Yazoo backwater area grew more doubtful.

The new forecast from the National Weather Service is that on Sunday the Mississippi River will reach 49.3 feet on the Vicksburg gauge. That’s up 0.3 foot from the previous estimate.

Upstream, stages were rising again, including at Memphis, where the Mississippi appeared to have topped out.

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The new forecast puts the Mississippi here just 2.3 feet lower than the 1973 crest, which was the worst flood since 1927. It would equal flooding last experienced in 1983.

Warren County officials closed LeTourneau Road this morning, meaning the producer of offshore oil rigs will not be able to get people to its production facility on the Mississippi until the river falls back below Tuesday’s stage of 48.4 feet, which may be a week to 10 days. This morning’s reading on the Mississippi was 48.7 feet, up 0.3 foot in 24 hours.

Longer term, an estimated 200,000 acres of cropland is already under water inside the levee system north of Vicksburg. The land is protected from much worse flooding by the levees, but accumulations of rain water on the flat area keep land out of production.

Farmers who have been able to plant their summer crops are in danger of having young plants either washed away by rising waters or smothered due to a lack of oxygen to the plant roots, said Warren County Extension Service Director John Coccaro. Those who are waiting for floodwaters to subside so they can seed crops are getting way behind schedule, and have already missed key planting windows to ensure a good harvest.

“Farmers inside the structure are in a very precarious situation right now, and they don’t know what to do,” said Coccaro. “We could be looking at a thin crop this year.”

The Steele Bayou Control Structure near Mississippi 465 is the drainage point for roughly 4,000 square miles of timber and farmland known as the Yazoo backwater area. The structure’s gates have been closed since March 13 to keep out Mississippi River water, but the bathtub effect, including up to 4 inches of rain last week, is taking its toll.

With normal rainfall through April 13, The Vicksburg District of the Army Corps of Engineers expects, floodwaters on the landside of the structure will top out at 94 feet on May 10, said Robert Simrall, chief of water control. With no rain over the Yazoo backwater area, the landside is forecast to top out at 91.5 feet on April 15.

Beginning Thursday afternoon, about 1 to 2 inches of rainfall are expected, according to forecasts from the National Weather Servic.

“At about 92 or 93, structures and some homes inside the backwater area will begin to take on water,” said Kent Parrish, Corps senior manager for the Yazoo backwater project. “I don’t know the exact number of acres that will flood at those levels, but there’s already about 200,000 acres that are flooded in the backwater area, and with normal rainfall there would be a substantially higher number of acres flooded.”

Today, water stage on the landside of the structure is at 90 feet, a rise of 0.3 feet from Tuesday. On the riverside of the structure, the water stood at 97.7 feet, also a rise of 0.3 feet from the day previous.

Pumps to remove the impounded water have been part of Corps levee system planning since 1991, but have never been approved or fully funded. What the Corps calls its final reformulation of a plan to add pumps was rolled out earlier this year and will be the subject of an Environmental Protection Agency hearing at the Vicksburg Convention Center April 17. Environmental groups as well as those who question the Corps’ projected cost-benefit ratio oppose the pumps. The pumps would be turned on when the inside level reaches 87 feet.

“This project is designed primarily to keep water out of homes, although it would also reduce a lot of agricultural damage,” he said.

The EPA event is dubbed a veto hearing because the agency can kill the $220 million project. The federal agency has the authority under the Clean Water Act. Since 1980, 11 projects water projects have been killed via the veto — the last one in 1990.

“We’re going to have flooding in the South Delta that could be seriously alleviated if the pumps were in place,” said Peter Nimrod, chief engineer for the Mississippi Levee Board.

Already, the wheat crop in most areas north of Vicksburg outside the backwater area has been covered for weeks and likely destroyed, said Coccaro. South of Vicksburg, many farmers’ lands are also inundated with river water, but there are fewer in wheat, a winter crop. As with other areas, farmers to the South are being forced to wait until the river subsides before they can plant.

Even with a crest in four days, with 6 feet of water or more on many fields, it could be months before some are able to plant, said Coccaro.

“After a crest, the river doesn’t necessarily go down as quickly as it came up. It could be weeks before it’s back down to below flood stage,” he said. “It could be early May before the water is off fields, and then you have to have those muddy fields dry out before you can run a tractor over them to plant. We could see some planting put off until late May or even June.”

Corn can be planted beginning as early as late February if conditions permit, and the seeds should be in the ground no later than the first week of April. Soybeans, as well, would ideally already be in the ground.

“We’ve had extremely successful soybean harvests in the past few years, and a lot of that success is due to early planting,” said Coccaro. Most crops can be planted as late as July, but that exposes them to the most extreme heat and the driest months of the year when plants are very young.

Mississippi RiverCREST FORECAST49.3 feet on SundayTODAY’S STAGE:48.7 feetROSE:0.3 footFLOOD STAGE:43 feet

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