Corps celebrates major milestone in Vicksburg

Published 6:47 pm Monday, September 3, 2018

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District celebrated a milestone in August with its 145th anniversary.

District officials observed the event with a Founders Day Program that recognized team members with 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40 years of service. The ceremony concluded with a cake cutting with a saber held by Col. Michael DeRosier, the senior serving member Norma Walker, and newest serving member Janice Darby.

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The Vicksburg District presently covers a 68,000-square-mile area across portions of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana that includes seven major river basins and incorporates approximately 460 miles of mainline levees. It is involved in hundreds of projects and employs about 1,000 people.

Derosier said the District’s missions have been the reason for its long life.

“Everything we do in the Corps of Engineers is authorized by and appropriated by Congress, so it’s the civil works needs of the region that have enabled the district to be able to serve here in Vicksburg for 145 years,” he said.

“I am filled with nothing but pride and honor to be able to serve as the district commander of the Vicksburg District,” he said of continuing its legacy.

“Certainly, I think our primary mission centers around navigation and flood risk management, but I think beyond that is one of the things that makes the Vicksburg District very unique we’re operating along the entire range of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works business lines,” DeRosier said.

That includes not only navigation and flood risk management, but environmental stewardship, water supply, hydropower, emergency management regulations and recreation.

“We have very heavy maintenance requirements, especially as it’s related to the Mississippi River as well as our lock and dam infrastructure on the Ouachita, Black and Red rivers, and our flood control reservoirs in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas,” he said.

Mission evolves

But when Capt. William Henry Harrison Benyaurd opened a U.S. Army Engineer office in Monroe, Louisiana in 1873, flood control and the environmental issues weren’t the mission. The office’s primary duties included surveys, and removing wrecks and other navigational hazards in the Yazoo River in Mississippi and the Ouachita River in Louisiana after the Civil War.

The first permanent Vicksburg office was opened in August 1884, five years after Congress created the Mississippi River Commission to direct all work on the Mississippi River and designated the Corps of Engineers districts to do the work.

In 1929, Vicksburg became one of three engineer districts in the then-Lower Mississippi Valley Division. The other districts were in Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana.

In the early days of flood control, Corps levee construction was limited to areas where it improved navigation. It was because of this requirement that the Vicksburg District was able to aid local levee boards in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1900s.

With the Flood Control Act of 1928, passed in the wake of the 1927 Flood Mississippi River flood, the Mississippi River & Tributaries Project established a comprehensive flood control program, which eventually included lakes, levees, and other measures.

The plan called for floodways, spillways, levee improvements, channel stabilization, mapping, and a navigation channel, a system capable of safely passing the worst possible flood in the valley.

The plan called for at least one floodway in the Vicksburg District, but it was never built. Instead, a cutoff program proved so beneficial that the floodway was dropped, and 14 cutoffs were made, shortening the river by 152 miles. Cutoffs allow the river to pass increased flows more quickly.

Other District projects included the construction of Sardis Lake, Arkabutla Lake on the Coldwater River, and three similar lakes on the headwaters of the Ouachita River in Arkansas-Ouachita, DeGray and Greeson.

Besides flood control, the three Arkansas lakes were designed for hydropower production. In the early 1950s, work began on the first of the three Ouachita River Lakes.

Narrows Dam at Lake Greeson on the Little Missouri River, the only concrete dam constructed in the Vicksburg District, was the first of three multipurpose flood control dams built in Arkansas. Narrows was followed by Blakely Mountain on Lake Ouachita in 1955 and by DeGray on the Caddo River in 1970.

In 1960, the Corps began the Flood Plain Management program to provide floodplain management assistance, upon request, to local, state, and other federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Farmers Home Administration, Federal Housing Administration, and the U.S. Postal Service.

Responsibilities expand

Since the Corps first opened an office in Vicksburg, the work and responsibility of the district has grown and diversified. From simple clearing and snagging operations on two small rivers in Mississippi and Louisiana, the mission of the Vicksburg District has grown to an annual program regularly exceeding $200 million and work responsibilities with international impacts.

Flood control structures, such as Steele Bayou Structure near the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers, and pumping plants, such as Tensas-Cocodrie on the Black River in Louisiana, have been built allowing water to pass outward while preventing rising stages from backing through the levees.

DeRosier believes the advent of technology help the District perform its duties even more efficiently.

“I think the technology will help us find ways to innovate the way we deliver the mission,” he said.

“I think that’s another important aspect of being in Vicksburg and being co-located with Engineer Research and Development Center, we’ve got a lot of researchers and engineers that are thinking about how to do things better and in a lot of ways, we can serve as practitioners of some of those technologies.”

He expects the District to become more active in its mission.

“Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James has all of us across the Corps to move dirt, and the chief of engineers, (Lt.) Gen. (Todd) Semonite has charged us with revolutionizing the way we execute our mission, so that’s the really the exciting history to come with the Vicksburg District,” DeRosier said.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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