Blowing Up Birds Point: The Army Corps of Engineers Gets One Right

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I have an unhealthy obsession with the ecologically destructive boondoggles of the Army Corps of Engineers, the dysfunctional water resources agency that drowned New Orleans. And one of the most ludicrous Corps projects is located in Missouri’s soggy southeastern bootheel, right where the agency dynamited a Mississippi River levee Monday that will flood 130,000 acres of farmland. But I’m not going to use this opportunity to re-trash the project. Yet.

First, I’m going to give the Corps some props. It’s going to take a lot of flak for its controversial decision to blow up the Birds Point levee, but it’s doing the right thing. And it’s redeeming some ugly history.

Nobody likes to flood farmland on purpose, but this particular farmland is in a floodway. After the catastrophic flood of 1927, when the swollen Mississippi River had no room to spread out, Congress designated this sparsely inhabited area to be sacrificed in case the river ever rose that high again.  The idea was to keep the river from overwhelming the levees protecting the population of Cairo, Ill.

Well, the “project flood” is here.  It’s been here for several days, but the handful of predominantly white and well-off landowners around Bird Point and their allies in Missouri politics persuaded the Corps to hold off for a while, and filed lawsuits to try to force the Corps to back off. Meanwhile, the 3,000 predominantly black and poor residents of Cairo have been waiting in fear. But now the Corps has acted to save them.

I suppose the Corps shouldn’t get too much credit for doing its job; it may even be too late to save Cairo’s levees. But when the river rose in 1927, as my friend John Barry chronicled in his brilliant history Rising Tide, the Corps blew up a levee and drowned poor black communities in order to save the property of rich whites. So this is a welcome reversal.

That said, before this flood, the Corps was still pushing ahead with its preposterous St. John’s Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project, which would promote more development in the floodway and make it much harder to do the right thing during the next flood. I’ll tell the story of the St. John’s project in a future post, hopefully after the waters subside.