OUR OPINION: We’re at the mercy of a powerful force

Published 4:00 am Friday, October 28, 2022

Vicksburg has always been a river town — save for 1876-1903 — and the events of this month have served as a stark reminder of just how much we’re at the mercy of the water.

With the Mississippi River reaching its lowest point in years, life has become harder for many people who work and live here.

Industrially speaking, we’ve fared pretty well. Although the water has gone below zero for a few days, it hasn’t yet reached the point at which the Port of Vicksburg would be forced to halt operations. In other places, like Memphis and Greenville, that hasn’t been the case.

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Still, the hardworking individuals in our maritime industries have had to get creative and find workarounds to keep business going. Light-loading the barges, using barges with a smaller draft and even adding barges close to the docks to raise the water level.

The Mississippi River has long been the lifeblood of our area, from Vicksburg north into the Delta.

Historically, it seems the timeline of our area has been punctuated by either praying we won’t drown in unforgiving currents or praying the water won’t dry up and leave us in the dust.

For many of our residents, especially those living between the Mississippi River and the Yazoo Backwater, it seems as though the water’s impact is ineffable. We have levees and canals in place in futile attempts to divert and control the water, but at the end of the day, even those systems are at the mercy of the river’s whims.

The irony is not lost on us as we simultaneously focus on the low Mississippi River levels and the historic floods that happen in the Yazoo Backwater area, as chronicled in the “Faces of the Floods” series and “Voices of the Floods” podcast.

That’s because the two are equal, but different, issues.

The Mississippi River levels are largely dependent upon rainfall, snow melt and other environmental factors. Currently, more than 55 percent of the contiguous United States is in drought.

The Yazoo Backwater area, on the other hand, experiences flooding due to rainwater accumulation — and that accumulation is exacerbated by the completion of the earlier components of the Yazoo Backwater Project, including levees, channels and flood gates, but the incompletion of a key component.

A virtual bathtub was constructed which, during Mississippi River floods, has no drain. The drain, the Yazoo pumps, is the incomplete piece of the project that allows more than 500,000 acres to flood periodically.

To explain, for those in the backwater, the Mississippi River Level is largely only detrimental in relation to the backwater level. When the Backwater level is higher than the Mississippi River, the Steele Bayou floodgates can be opened to drain the water out and into the Mississippi. When the Mississippi River is higher than the Backwater, Steele Bayou is closed.

When the Mississippi River and Backwater levels are equal… the Steele Bayou gates must remain closed and there’s no way to pump out the accumulated Backwater.

In our part of the world, where we’ve historically trudged through the mud and the spirit of its mighty water courses through our veins, we’re praying for rain — but not too much — and it’s all too apparent how dependent we are on the tides.