Book Looks At Efforts To Control Rivers And The Impacts On People

Jun 8, 2021

A barge passes underneath the Junction Bridge heading south on the Arkansas River on Sept. 4, 2015.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

A recently-released book explores the history of efforts to control major rivers in the U.S. and the impact those waterways have on the lives and livelihoods of many people. But aging infrastructure and a lack of funding is posing major problems, as author Tyler J. Kelley points out in "Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways."

Credit Avid Reader Press

The Arkansas River was one river discussed in the book. He spoke with KUAR News from New York on Monday, the same day officials in Arkansas were marking the 50th anniversary of the Arkansas River McClellan-Kerr Navigation System.

The project to make the river accessible for commercial barge traffic involved building a system of locks and dams, while many railroad bridges had to be retrofitted with lift spans to allow barges to pass underneath. While it was a major expense, officials have said the investment was worth it to make the river, which crosses through Arkansas and Oklahoma, navigable for commercial freight movement.

KUAR NEWS: You write that the infrastructure of rivers is old and underfunded. Flooding two years ago of the Arkansas River occurred after the Army Corps of Engineers had to release water in Oklahoma and downstream in Arkansas it eventually caused widespread flooding with up to 2,000 homes damaged. How would you rate the Arkansas River compared to others you’ve visited?

TYLER J. KELLEY: Well, the Arkansas River really was designed for navigation and I don't think the flood control system on the Arkansas is or has ever been the priority. And one thing that is interesting when you look at rivers as a system, so the Arkansas feeds into the Mississippi, of course, and so the Mississippi has very comprehensive flood control levees on it. And you often find that the levees on the tributary streams are not as strong or as tall as the levees in the mainstream Mississippi. And sometimes you wonder if, in fact, those levees on the tributaries are designed to sort of overtop or crevasse first to diminish pressure on this really excellent system that the Army Corps of Engineers had built on the mainline Mississippi.

And not to say that there's any sort of malfeasance or deviousness involved there, but that's a really interesting situation in 2019, as you mentioned, where the levees on the Arkansas blew out because, again, they weren't prepared for a weather event like this and that event actually allowed the Army Corps of Engineers not to open the Morganza Floodway, which would have flooded thousands of acres in northern Louisiana and on down to south central Louisiana. And that is one of these designated floodways where the landowners have actually been paid flowage easements for the Army Corps’ right to run water on their land on occasion.

And so, it just raises an interesting sort of ethical question that I think comes along with any kind of big river management, especially when you have a lot of risk, like you did in 2019, is who gets wet and who stays dry. And I think to manage effectively a big river, somebody has to get wet. And there are smart ways to, I think, compensate those who are going to get wet to design systems and structures that allow property to flood on occasion. And I think the Arkansas levee blowouts of 2019 were in a sense, a failure of kind of the macro management system, because the people who are not paid and who were not prepared for this, that's who it happened to, and so I think it's worth re-evaluating that.

When I spoke with a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers a few months ago as repairs were being made the system, he noted one problem in Arkansas was that levee boards who were tasked with maintaining the levees, many were no longer active, some hadn’t been in decades. So that was one problem highlighted by the flooding.

Certainly. And that's something also that's interesting is the Army Corps of Engineers has varying degrees of involvement with different levee systems. And so this levee system on the Mississippi River, the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, has a great deal of federal oversight and it isn't really up to as much the individual states or the individual boards how those levees are going to be maintained. They cut the grass and stuff like that, but sort of the specs, the size, the width, the height of the levees is determined by the federal government.

So you see this, for instance, on the upper Mississippi, which is north of Cairo, Illinois, all the way up to St. Paul. People up there still have this kind of piecemeal levee system where it's one county, one levee district against another, against another state. Someone builds it a little higher, someone builds it a little lower, someone doesn't maintain it. And I can't speak to the budgets of whatever agencies are involved. I don't know how much it would cost, but just sort of on a policy level, you see these comprehensive projects like the one of the lower Mississippi are so much better at managing flood risk than the ones that rely on individual states, individual levee districts, individual counties.

And so interestingly or unfortunately, a catastrophe like 2019 is really a good time to reevaluate a system because obviously what was on the ground didn't work, right? And so, I think that gives policymakers an opportunity. Maybe it needs to come from Congress. The Corps can't really make decisions like this, but to say, is there a better way of doing this, is there a more comprehensive way we could address this? And the system I keep referring to on the lower Mississippi came about as a result of the 1927 flood, which was probably the worst flood in history in the United States. And so, there's an opportunity there because the status quo was kind of demolished to start something new, to rethink it. And I'd be interested to ask officials in Arkansas, I didn't get a chance, my book came out after that, if there's an opportunity to do that.

Yeah, they did indeed talk about using newer technology in this and what was used to build the levee. But to your book, talk about what you expressed here and really the problem of trying to control rivers as it was first devised in this country.

Well, the use of the word control is interesting because the Army Corps of Engineers always used control, and my belief is until Hurricane Katrina. And then once their system around New Orleans was totally destroyed, they kind of got with this much more sort of human resources type language of risk reduction and harm reduction and they never sort of promised control afterwards. But I think control really was their intent and their objective, and not to single out the Army Corps of Engineers, they are representative of the federal government.

For a century, our elected leaders and therefore the people of the United States themselves did seek to control these tremendously powerful natural forces. And there have been a lot of benefits to that: habitable floodplains, relatively reliable and very low-cost bulk transportation, and many sectors of the economy have really flourished and many whole towns and counties and vast swaths of land are habitable because of this. And so, I think it's a tradeoff worth looking at.

Again, you try to rein this thing in, you try to control it. It isn't fully, totally effective, it can never really be a certainty, but there are a lot of benefits. And so, I think when you look at climate change bringing a lot of extra precipitation into this basin, increasing the risk, the question to ask is how can we preserve as many of these benefits as we can while giving the river a little bit more room, which is really the only way to manage this increased rain that's coming down the river, and anyone who lives along the river sees it. You know, the joke is a 100-year flood happens every other year now. And so there's more rain, there's more water, no one denies that at this time. So, the question is what to do about it.

You also note that policies are still in place that essentially determine which homes are damaged and which ones are not when something goes wrong,

There's a historic set of relief valves, so to speak, along the Mississippi River system where water can be let out of the river in a controlled way. The Morganza Floodway, which we already spoke about, is one of them. There's another one up in southeast Missouri called the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway and it's really controversial and traumatic every time these things are used because they're used very infrequently for one thing, so the memory of the event is lost through the generations.

And so, the people who are alive now say in 2011, when the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway was used, no one was alive in 1937, the previous time, so it feels brand new. The money that was paid to these landowners is long gone, it was paid to their grandparents, and so they feel like they have never been compensated for this flooding that's about to occur because, again, the government can flood these tracts of land whenever the river rises to a certain point. And the trauma of having their homes wiped away, their farmland destroyed is really visceral, even if it’s the right to do and this has been paid for in advance.

I spoke at length with members of a small African-American village called Pinhook, which is in the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway in southeast Missouri. And they're a unique case because they never had really an authentic choice about where to settle in the first place. This story that Jim Robinson Sr., the founder of the community tells, is that when they came up from Tennessee, that was the only land they were allowed to own, this essentially sacrificial land in the Birds Point New Madrid floodway.

And so, they never had an authentic choice about where to live and when it came to May 2011 to activate this thing, meaning to blow the levee and let the water rush through, the unofficial mayor of the community and her family, Deborah Robinson Tarver, still the Robinson family, felt really, I think, miscommunicated with, disrespected by what they perceived to be a largely white power structure in the state, the county, the Corps of Engineers, and they felt like they should have been communicated with better, given better assistance, and the way it ended up is they only had about 36 hours to pack up a dozen homes worth of belongings and get them out of the floodway before the National Guard set up checkpoints and they weren't allowed to return. And then again, it took them seven years to file paperwork with FEMA, finally get some kind of money for buyouts, a block grant from HUD to build new homes outside of the floodway.

But there's some really interesting research done by a couple of sociologists at the University of Pittsburgh about how the more disaster aid an area receives, the less equal wealth distribution becomes. So, the black population actually loses wealth, the more aid an area receives and the white population actually gains wealth, the more aid an area receives. And I think for the former residents of Pinhook, you could clearly track a loss in wealth, despite FEMA and HUD eventually coming through with grants to rebuild their homes.

And so, again, when you think about the use of floodways, this is going to have to happen more often, not less. It's not really something we can afford to do without. In fact, if we were really looking forward we want to be building more of these things. But the question is, how can we do it equitably? Because clearly it wasn't done equitably the first time around. That was almost 100 years ago.

Well, finally, I wanted to ask you about a major problem we've had recently in this area, not directly involving efforts to control a river, but the I-40 bridge crossing the Mississippi River between Arkansas and Tennessee that not only halted vehicular traffic over the bridge, but barge traffic underneath. Any thoughts about this, I guess another problem of aging infrastructure? 

Absolutely. And I didn't write about bridges in my book, I just focused on waterways, but I think it's important for everybody to realize how many vital raw materials travel on the waterways: grain, fuel, coal is still on there, chemicals, plastic, fertilizer, metal. And I did spend some time a little bit upstream from there at the tail end of the Ohio River with the folks who were struggling to manage and maintain, operate two very old locks and dams in the tail end of the Ohio, locking them, number 53 and 52.

And so when the I-40 bridge was big in the news, it occurred to me, well, you know, these folks were dealing with shutdowns that would last a week and these weeklong shutdowns would happen several times a year when they were struggling to get this old fashioned dam off the river bottom, get it to stand up and hold back the Ohio, creating a deep enough water for navigation and just the stress that it put those people under. I wish that when their dam was falling apart, that they had gotten this much news, as much attention as the I-40 crack because it was almost as consequential in terms of commerce. And there were people involved, meaning there were people struggling to get this dam up and it was failing before their eyes. And again, in my book, I really try to talk about the sort of personal stories behind infrastructure and to just see these people's faces when the mission they were tasked with doing proved to be impossible and how frustrating that was for them. I would like people to think about that aspect of aging infrastructure as well.