Floodwaters pour through the third levee breach site in Missouri near Cairo, Ill., in May 2011. (Jessica Naudziunas/Harvest Public Media)
A new study suggests the Army Corps of Engineers made the right decision when it destroyed a levee and flooded farmland in southeastern Missouri.
The Corps blew up the Birds Point-New Madrid levee in Cairo, Ill., last year in the face of rising floodwaters on the Missouri side of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The study’s authors (PDF) argue the floodway and farmland would have been inundated with or without Corps action.
“It started off as a choice between prime farmland in Missouri and lowering the pressures on an urban levee system,” said Ken Olson, a soil sciences professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of the study. “However, the forecasted peak was wrong. It was too low. And in fact, the floodwater was going to go over the top of the fuse plug.”
Olson says the river level in Cairo continued to rise even after the Corps breached the levee on May 2. The next day, he said, the river peaked at over 61 feet – more than a foot above the level of the levee’s fuse plug.
“We ended up choosing between flooding the farmland and the city, or just flooding the farmland," Olson said.
Without the breach, according to Olson, the city of Cairo would have been flooded by 22 feet of water.
Instead, acres of prized farmland were at least temporarily destroyed. In another study (PDF), Olson found agricultural production levels in the floodway will be compromised for years to come.
Olson’s studies were published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.