Corps of EngineersLow river level a tremendous test

Published 11:02 pm Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Mississippi River is making very sure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is prepared for anything thrown at it.

Last year, water rising to unprecedented heights sent the Corps into a monthslong battle against one of nature’s most uncontrollable furies. When the river decides to rise, it will rise. The great American writer Mark Twain put it best when he said, “The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.”

The river rose past initial predictions and continued to rise. It rose past benchmark floods of the past. 1937. 1973. The Great Flood of 1927. It rose to 57.1 feet on May 19, 14.1 feet above flood stage and nearly a foot higher than had ever been recorded.

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The next six weeks were spent with cautious optimism as the water receded to within the great river’s banks. Widespread fears of levee breaches and mass damage, thankfully, never were realized. The Corps’ tough decisions certainly aided that.

And now the river is at it again. But not like that. This time, the mighty old man witha mind of its own has decided to throw another challenge in the Corps’ direction. The river is reaching historical low levels now. It is expected to record in the negative numbers by mid-August. Of course, that does not mean the river is about to dry up.

The Mississippi River was at 3.3 feet Saturday afternoon. The record is negative 7 on Feb. 3, 1940. A “minus” reading does not mean the river is dry, nor do current readings mean only 2.8 feet of water is in the riverbed. They are measures of how the river gauge is designed.

The Corps’ river dredgers have been running nearly non-stop, collecting and displacing silt from the bottom of the river to keep ports in Mississippi and Louisiana open and a navigable channel in the river clear.

On any given day — at least when the river is considered at levels higher than this — one can watch barge traffic plying the river in both directions. The importance of commercial shipping is easily visible by the sheer volume of barges. The river is of great importance to this country’s economy.

Sometimes it thinks for itself. And, if we take Twain’s words to heart, it will do what it wants.

Twain, though, never had the Corps of Engineers to tackle all the river can throw. Luckily, we do.

The Corps helped avoid disaster in the flood. Now its engineers and staff are keeping commerce viable as the river “dries up.”

Well done.