The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to open the Morganza Flood Control Structure on Sunday to relieve flooding on the Mississippi River. For those who live and work downstream of the spillway, that means it’s time to get ready.
For this story, we’re going to take a trip down the floodway, north to south. We’ll start in the town of Morganza, and end up down near the Gulf, talking to people along the way.
Stop #1: Spillway Cafe, Morganza, LA
The Spillway Cafe is a combination gas station, convenience store, and restaurant just down the road from the Morganza Flood Control Structure.
If this opening is anything like the last one in 2011, Traci Ewing expects a lot of curious onlookers coming to town to watch.
“Some of the locals have said that last time it was like a Mardi Gras parade with the people walking back and forth,” says Ewing.
The Spillway Cafe has all the Louisiana standards -- poboys, etouffee, etc. -- plus several geographically relevant items like the Bayou Burger and the Flooded Fries, which are drowning in a layer of cheese and two kinds of sauce. (In the interest of journalistic transparency, I should disclose that I ordered a batch of the fries and they were quite possibly the tastiest thing I have eaten in two years.)
Ewing says she’s going to “staff a little heavier” in order to deal with the possible crowds on the day of the opening. While tourists are digesting french fries, many farmers, like Carl Newton, might have a different feeling in their guts. Opening the spillway is going to completely wipe out their crops.
Stop #2: Farming In The Morganza Floodway
“Most people are resigned to the possibility of the spillway being opened,” Newton says, reminding me that it’s a possibility every year.
People aren’t allowed to build permanent structures in the floodway, but according to Louisiana’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry there are 25,000 acres of farmland.
Newton has about 500 acres of sugarcane in there, and we hop in his truck to check it out. We head south on Highway 10, hugging Bayou Fordoche and the floodway’s guide levees. The road turns to gravel as we drive up and over the levee.
Inside the floodway, everything is wild and green. No road signs, no structures -- just super tall trees with pockets of agricultural fields. We reach his plot, where shoots of sugar cane disappear behind a railroad trestle. Newton walks to the edge of the field and scoops up a handful of light brown soil.
“This is why we're here,” he says, staring at his cupped hands, “for this unbelievably fertile beautiful soil that's been deposited here by the Atchafalaya and Mississippi Rivers.”
It’s good dirt for growing, but soon it’ll be mud. Once the Corps opens Morganza, all of this will be underwater.
“It'll probably be about five or six feet deep here,” Newton says.
That’s going to kill all of this cane -- $300,000 worth, he estimates.
Stop #3: Crawfishers Of The Atchafalaya Basin
Like farmers in the floodway, wild-caught commercial crawfishers are also bracing for impact. Many of their traps are strung to trees in the Atchafalaya swamp, where the water is predicted to rise by several feet.
I meet crawfisher Jody Meche at a boat ramp underneath I-10 -- the Whiskey Bay exit. 18-wheelers zoom above our heads as he pulls his boat out of the water.
Meche has been catching wild crawfish in the basin for upwards of 40 years, and is the President of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association - West. The inside of his boat is littered with tree branches and there’s a droplet of blood on his left forearm.
“The branches all got me scuffed up and scratched up. We give our blood sweat and tears to try to catch them crawfish and bring them to the consumer,” he says with a chuckle.
Meche says when Morganza opened in 2011, the current moved so quickly through the swamp that he lost about 500 traps. They just blew away. Another 500 were still attached to the trees but were flapping around like kites in the wind -- which isn’t an effective way to catch crawfish.
Meche says 2011 was a “crawfishing nightmare,” but adds that opening Morganza might not be all bad. He says a strong pulse of fresh water could be good for the crawfish. It could improve the water quality in some areas and help crawfish grow -- so long as it doesn’t run too fast.
“We're going to have to just wait and see,” says Meche. “It could be very good or it could be very bad again.”
Our last stop is down near the coast, where there’s a problem.
Stop #4: Bayou Chene Near Morgan City
Several months of high water have caused backwater flooding in several parishes toward the southern end of the Atchafalaya Basin. When the Corps opens Morganza, that’s going to elevate concern in places like Morgan City. To reduce backwater flooding, the state has been working to plug Bayou Chene, which is routing too much water back into the basin. The solution? Sink a giant barge in the middle of it. (The sink-a-barge method has actually been employed several times since the 1970’s.)
Governor John Bel Edwards inspected the site last week as workers were finishing construction, and praised the partnerships between the local, state, and federal entities that allowed it to happen quickly.
Given that sinking a boat isn’t the most cost-effective strategy for long-term flood management, the state recently committed $80 million toward construction of a permanent floodgate on Bayou Chene. Construction is expected to start sometime next year. When it’s finished, officials will be able to push back the water with the push of a button.
“That's gonna provide a lot of peace of mind to an awful lot of property owners, homeowners, and business people as we move forward,” says Edwards.
Peace of mind doesn’t mean free of risk. The Mississippi River has been flooding more and more in recent years. There’s plenty of disagreement about why -- whether that has more to do with climate change, development patterns, or the levees themselves. But one thing is for sure: the more it floods, the more people will have to spend their time and money dealing with all the extra water.
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