Mississippi flooding: Let the river run


On a frosty May morning in 1951, a young woman named Louise Holding Eagle jumped into the cab of her pickup truck, waved goodbye to her husband and two toddlers, and drove off to buy groceries in Beulah, N.D., the nearest town, about 35 miles from their farm. Louise decided to make a day of it when she ran into old friends at the store, and finally turned for home at twilight.

“None of us had phones back then, but my husband Matthew was an easygoin’ man, and I knew he wouldn’t mind if I was late.”

When she reached her driveway in full darkness, she thought she had been daydreaming and made a wrong turn. “I don’t know how long I sat there before I realized I was home,” Louise recalled for me more than half a century later. “This was our farm, all right! But everything was gone! The house, the chicken coop, the barn, my husband and children!”


Without a word of warning, written or verbal, an Army Corps of Engineers crew had arrived at Louise’s farm that afternoon and lifted all the buildings off their foundations, loaded them onto flatbed trucks and relocated them 20 miles away. Her house had to be moved to make way for the first of five massive dams that Congress approved with the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1944. Construction had already begun on the dam near Garrison, N.D., but lawmakers in Washington were still locked in legislative limbo over just what to do with the thousands of people these dams would displace. Finally tiring of bureaucratic delays, the Army Corps of Engineers, an agency with a reputation for being a government unto itself, took matters into its own hands and commenced evacuating the bottomlands.

“The trauma of what we lived through when the dams came, losing our land, identity, livelihood, community, schools, hospitals, churches, you just can’t imagine it unless you live through something like that,” said Louise in 2003. “A lot of our old people just gave up and died.”

What began on the upper Missouri River in 1951 is playing out this month in the flooding of the lower Mississippi and dozens of communities in its delta. This is a man-made disaster, the legacy of an earlier generation of politicians, farmers and ranchers who made a lot of bad (and very expensive) decisions to correct short-term problems on the Missouri River when the best available science — including findings in a 1934 corps report — warned Congress that those solutions would create dire long-term consequences.

The floodwaters released this month from the Morganza Spillway — to relieve pressure on Baton Rouge and New Orleans — will permanently disrupt the lives of thousands of citizens. John Barry, the author of “Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” has been telling anyone who will listen that the devastation caused by the 2011 flood is a direct consequence of the five huge dams built downstream from Louise Holding Eagle’s farm, under what is known as the Pick-Sloan Plan, 60 years ago.

Barry is echoing the fears of river hydrologists who have been predicting this catastrophe since the 1960s. The problem, as they view it, is straightforward. Spilling tens of millions of acre feet of water from dams on the upper Missouri (in years of heavy runoff) into a swollen Mississippi will turn the delta into a small ocean and threaten major urban centers on the lower Mississippi.

Had we not built dams on the Missouri, had we refrained from building homes and cities on Missouri River floodplains, periodic floods would have occurred, but without the catastrophic consequences we see today. Floods would have replenished the river bottoms with alluvial silts (producing bumper crops) and deposited nutrients on the barrier islands in the gulf. Those islands, which once protected New Orleans from violent gulf storms, have vanished in the 50 years since the dams were built. This double-whammy — New Orleans vulnerable to storms from the gulf side, and the lower Mississippi and its delta vulnerable to flooding from the upstream side — can be laid at the feet of Pick-Sloan.


When the Pick-Sloan Plan was approved — projected cost of $20 billion — it was the most expensive and ambitious public works project ever conceived by Congress. The scheme merged two proposals for managing the million-square-mile Missouri River basin and its “mad elephant of a river,” the 2,400-mile-long Missouri. Its features included navigation, hydro-electric, irrigation and recreation. The Pick Plan, advanced by Col. Lewis Pick of the Army Corps of Engineers, was sold to members of Congress with the promise that Indian lands only — no white lands, towns and cities — would be inundated by the dams. The Sloan Plan, drafted by Bureau of Reclamation engineer Glenn Sloan, called for building 100 small dams across the region, and was championed by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who viewed the corps as a “lawless … self-serving clique in contempt of the public welfare.”

Confounding all skeptics, the two plans were merged into a monolithic project at a meeting in Omaha, Neb., in 1944. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law, the powerful National Farmer’s Union president, James Patton, called it “a shameless, loveless, shotgun wedding,” and predicted it would turn into another hydraulic disaster built by the Army Corps of Engineers. An editorial at the time in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch agreed, calling it “the most gigantic boondoggle in American history.”

While congressmen from the Missouri Valley states were toasting Pick-Sloan, the interim director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, William Brophy, sat down and wrote a letter to Martin Cross, the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations. Cross’ people — the tribes that kept Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery from starvation in the frigid winter of 1804-05 — were the first of 23 bands and tribes of Indians scheduled to lose treaty-protected homelands to Pick-Sloan. After encouraging the chairman to make as many friends as possible on the Senate’s Indian committee, he closed by saying, “There is nothing in Washington, D.C., that is easier to swallow, or harder to kill, than a bad idea.”

As a career bureaucrat at Interior, Brophy was well-schooled on the Missouri. He was probably one of the few people in Washington who read the corps’ 1,245-page report on the river, which was presented to Congress in 1934 by the chief of engineers, Maj. Gen. Lytle Brown. Brown hoped that the five-year investigation would shut the door on politicians’ dreams of water projects on the upper Missouri once and for all. Foreshadowing the warnings of 21st century hydrologists, Brown predicted that damming the upper Missouri would make management of the Mississippi — and protection of New Orleans — almost impossible in big runoff years. He cautioned lawmakers that given the underlying geology of the region and the notorious siltation issues associated with the river, only madmen would build dams above Sioux City, Iowa.

But three huge Missouri River floods in 1943 carried away towns, livestock, bridges, farmhouses and sound reasoning, and brought the madmen back to the table. Dry-land farmers were promised a million acres of irrigation if they would back Pick-Sloan. They backed it en masse, but those irrigation projects have never been built. Two dozen tribes were dispersed and relocated, with devastating consequences that they live with to this day. Garrison Dam, large enough to capture five times the annual flow of the Colorado River, is today so compromised by the siltation problems Brown warned about that the dam could be useless within two generations. Water behind those dams — brimful this spring — has only one place to go: downstream into an already swollen Mississippi.

Our legacy to the next generations is a catalogue that bristles with similar narratives. Are we never going to learn that the flotsam of our invincible ignorance will always come back to haunt us on a rising tide?


Paul VanDevelder’s book “Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire Through Indian Territory,” won the 2011 Oregon Book Award.