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Water Wars in Mid America: Part II - The Cost of Who to Save

flooding on the Ohio - Harrah's Casino and Metropolis under waterBalancing Act: Communities or Farmland?

During a hard driving rain, on the night of Monday May 2nd, along a stretch of levee works at a forgotten point of geography call Birds Point, Missouri, the US Army Corps of Engineers blew a one billion dollar hole in the levee.

They had made the decision to protect communities and urban property over the value of farm land.  Carlin Bennett, a county commissioner in Mississippi County, Missouri where the levee is located, estimated the federal government actions will cause one billion dollars in property damage to his agriculture community.

Land cost or value in this area is about $4,000 to $5,000 per acre. Some 133,000 acres of farm land will be flooded as a direct result of blowing the levee. Roughly, $500 million worth of farm land will be covered with 10 to 15 feet of flood water. 

Before the Corps could blow the levees, they had to fight two battles: (1) flooding rivers and (2) legal law suits to stop their action against the levees.  As the Corps leadership debated how to move forward, they parked two large barges of explosives at the Hickman Kentucky port. Lawyers from Missouri filed lawsuits to block the blowing of the levees while Illinois and Kentucky officials worked hard to convince the court the worth of saving towns and property in their states as well as consideration about the communities up river along the Ohio River.

First of all, the Corps is an engineer organization. Their thing is to figure out ways to solve problems. They learned from the great floods of 1927 and 1937 about what happens when the Mississippi goes on a rampage. When they built the levees, they installed a backup fail safe system to blow the works if serious flooding threatens the region.

The 2011 flooding made the threat of great disaster a reality within the zone of convergence of the Mississippi River and Ohio River systems. At risk of being flooded were (1) Cairo, Illinois (2) Metropolis, Illinois (3) Wickliffe, Kentucky (4) Hickman, Kentucky (5) Paducah, Kentucky (6) Calvert City, Kentucky (7) Smithland, Kentucky and (8) the dam complex at Grand Rivers, KY.

Major flooding in these communities would have taken out streets, businesses, homes, communications infrastructures, all economic and commerce activities Health systems, drinking water and sewer systems would be jeopardized. The economic loss would have been in the billions of dollars.

Farm land can quickly recover within two to four weeks once the water is gone and sunshine comes out. Recovery time for communities hit with major flooding takes months to get back to normal. Depending upon the degree of impact, recovery can take years.

The decisions and thought process of the Corps in this one situation will more than likely become a new template for how the US Government approaches large water disaster planning for human and physical crisis where cities and towns loom in more importance than do farm land or rural areas.

Geography of Water in Mid America

When Andrew Jackson forced the Chickasaw Indians to sell all their rights to land in Western Kentucky and Tennessee in 1818, little thought was given to the farm potential or economic development of the land. He saw the potential of acquiring land that held large access and control over the rivers. General Jackson understood that this land and region was critical to the strategic growth of the young nation of America.  These rivers were the interstates highways of the early 1800’s. People moved by rivers as they came into Mid America.

What became the Jackson Purchase (all land from Paducah, Kentucky down to Memphis, Tennessee) included the heart of North America’s greatest watershed.  Flowing into and merging along the northern border of the Jackson Purchase are the Mississippi River, Ohio River, Tennessee River, Cumberland River and Clarks River. Four of the five rivers flow and merge into the Mississippi River as part of a greater 17 state watershed.

In a world where fresh water is in short supply for roughly 1 billion individuals on this planet, regions of large supplies of fresh water will become as important as regions of large supplies of oil. The Jackson Purchase is such a mega region for fresh water and will grow in importance during the next 20 years.

Location and flow of fresh water will no longer be the guiding principles of water geography. Access, ownership (domestic or foreign) quality, volume, source of supply, cost, control and management, national and homeland security issues, competing economic development concerns will frame and drive the debate over American fresh water supply.  

Harrahs CasinoPolitics of Water

General Jackson in 1818 secured the convergence of the five rivers as a buffer against the interests of the Spanish and British military efforts to stop America’s westward growth. All major European powers had a stake in this region due to the Napoleonic Wars just fought in Europe at this time. Napoleon, in need of money to finance his war against the British, sold to Jefferson in 1803 most of the interior of the North American continent.

With this Louisiana Purchase, the Jackson Purchase was now the geographical center of the new American experiment.

The lure of control of the Mississippi River valley in light of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase made this region diplomatic hot zone. By treaties of the time, no single entity had complete control of the Mississippi River as it flowed south from southern Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico.

From 1803 to 1818, several plots were designed to take physical control of the river in the name of the British Empire vs. the Spanish Empire vs. the French Empire were thwarted by the young American government. With General Jackson’s action in securing the lands of what became West Kentucky and West Tennessee, he assured future dominance and control over the Mississippi river to be American.

Flash forward 200 years and control of the Mississippi River is still a major issue for national and state governments. In General Andrew Jackson’s time, the policy and politics of river control was to assure safe and secure passage over the waters for trade, commerce, and population movement into new lands for development.

Today, the policy and politics concerning control of the great rivers of Mid America now go to who controls water access, ownership, management, quality and cost.  

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