Federal Preeminence

The shocking enormity of the 1927 flood should have revealed the fallacy of the levee-only policy, but the failure was blamed on God and the private district levees. This led Washington politicians to enact the Flood Control Act of 1928. It called for control of flooding on the entire Lower Mississippi River system. Major floods recurred in 1936 and 1937 (Smith, 1937), and these again led to more Congressional activity, actions that clearly established the federal government as being primarily responsible for planning and accomplishing flood control across the nation.

Fortunately, by the 1940s the human learning curve had led to a much better understanding of floods and how to manage floodplains. This included recognition that flood control works such as reservoirs were needed, and that these should serve multiple purposes including flood control, river navigation, water supply, and in later years, recreational needs (Wright, 1996). Hence, between 1936 and 1952, Congress spent $11 billion for flood control projects, primarily designed to store water. The Corps of Engineers built 76 reservoirs in the Upper Mississippi River basin and 49 on the Missouri River basin, and the Bureau of Reclamation built 22 flood control reservoirs in the Missouri basin. The New Deal government committed sizable funds to flood control in the Mississippi River basin and among its efforts was the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933.

Another policy shift in flood mitigation had evolved over time and eventually brought a development of a proper balance in the sharing for flood mitigation activities involving the states, the federal government (in charge), and local entities such as communities and flood control districts. A regional-scale approach to flood control also emerged under the leadership of U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Soil Conservation Service in the 1940s. It had three regional components: (1) land treatment at the farm/local level (such as terracing), (2) upstream watersheds with flow retardation and channel stabilization, and (3) the standard downstream flood control measures (levees, pumps to remove water protected by levees, and major reservoirs). Efforts to improve flood mitigation were evolving.

Billions of dollars had been spent between 1851 and 1950 to structurally control flooding on the Mississippi River system, but it had not succeeded in abating flood losses. The words of a well-known river sage, Mark Twain, issued 40 years before flood experts and Congress recognized their mistakes over 100 years, are relevant. In his Life on the Mississippi published in 1896, Twain wrote,

Ten thousand river commissions, with the minds of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, "Go here," or "Go there," and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.

Flood mitigation had long been a national goal, and by 1940 had become a federal responsibility. By then flood mitigation embraced a complex of various federal and state agencies, each with a different mission and with each often addressing varying constituents with conflicting views about how to manage the rivers and handle flooding.

These groups included farming interests, agribusiness, river transportation, hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, and recreation interests.

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