Midwest Floods and Dutch Dams

Posted on Posted in History, Water Resources Engineering

Below is a not-so-short piece in a bit of an academic style inspired in part by the recent flooding in the Midwestern U.S., but also in part by some random reads that have actually tied together into a coherent picture. Just warning ahead of time, so you don’t think it is one of my fluff stories regarding beer and wine in the Austrian countryside…

When I first arrived in Vienna, I was a bit starved for good reading, especially before our shipment of stuff came. Most of the bookstores here in Vienna have a small section of English books, but most of them are supremely overpriced or relatively uninteresting (especially in light of those who remember my quirk of not often reading fiction…). I got lucky one day, though, when I wandered into a bookstore off the Graben, and found a sale bin underneath the table in the small English books section, and a half-price title called Rising Tide caught my eye enough to pony up the 7 Euro.

As I mentioned on the side bar, the book, by John M. Barry, was quite a fantastic read. The story wove together politics, history, science, and culture to tell the fascinating tale of human manipulation of the Mississippi River leading up to the greatest flood of the time, The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. This book really caught my attention, for it is right up my alley regarding the interactions of science/engineering and society. The pivotal engineering tale of the story revolves around the earliest efforts, which are still on-going, to tame the Mississippi and permanently reclaim the fertile land. For the start of this saga, one must go back to the Louisiana Purchase of the Jefferson Administration, after which time American settlers began pushing into the Mississippi and Missouri River areas and looking for farm land. It was also the blossoming era of engineering, when it seemed that man could re-build nature to any purpose. In this era, the first and most prominent group to move the earth was the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE).

The ACOE was the original engineering entity for the U.S. Army. It quickly morphed into a military civilian hybrid before the civil war, but stemmed from the mainland European tradition of engineering, as detailed by historian Tom Shallat. As the century progressed, this view was to come into conflict with a view of engineering that stemmed from English and American civilian schools, and de-emphasized the military tradition. As the country drifted towards Civil War in the mid-1800’s, the ACOE was busy dredging harbors, digging trenches, constructing dams, surveying land, and moving earth all over the country, from Maine to the newly explored Western territories. During the time of the Civil War, many technical officers in the Corps left their positions and enlisted in their respective North or South armies, returning to the military roots most possessed from an education at West Point.

After the Civil War, social attitudes began to change, and some of the first schools of engineering, such as M.I.T. and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, were beginning to gain prominence for their engineering curriculums that were outside of the military engineering tradition. In this backdrop, a gigantic battle emerged to tame the Mississippi and prevent the flooding of New Orleans, the burgeoning trade mecca sitting in a prime floodplain at the mouth of the Mississippi. In one side of the ring was Andrew Humphreys, the Chief Engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers who had written the seminal report for Congress on Mississippi flood control before the Civil War. On the other side, was the self-made civilian engineer James Buchanan Eads. The two had separate, but as it turned out complimentary, solutions for flood control on the Mississippi and fought tooth and nail for over a decade to influence Congress that their position was right. Eventually, Eads’s final solution was accepted, and his plans were completed in 1879.

With this as groundwork, Congress continued to fund manipulation of entire Mississippi River into the next century. Having earned its position through a variety of experience, tradition and lobbying, the ACOE was always involved in these projects, though Congress had made a significant shift towards civilian engineers in the late 19th century. The constant manipulation of the Mississippi, under funding of projects, led to a series of ever-increasing river heights through the early 1900’s. Massive floods that only occurred every 30 or 50 years were now happening within a decade. Something had changed, and it was the course of the Mississippi. Through the constant construction of levees, along with poor system planning and construction, the River was poised to overrun its levees and take back the reclaimed delta valleys that were now rich farmland.

And that it did, with the biggest flood to date in 1927. The River flooded at sections along the entire length, culminating in the blasting of a dam in New Orleans that flooded traditionally poorer sections of the city in favor of saving the commercial centers. The strange, secretive, and affluent southern culture of New Orleans was never to be the same after the massive flood and the Great Depression.

So I thought about Rising Tide in the past weeks when hearing about the massive rainfalls slamming the Missouri and upper-Mississippi Valleys. In several media sources, I heard officials from the Army Corps of Engineers strongly, if not a bit arrogantly, defending their flood control measures with narrow (but acceptable) terminology between breeches and overflows. From as much as I have read, it appears as though the flood control system of the Mississippi withstood this bought of spring rain, and flooding only occurred because the levees were over topped rather than breached.

The ACOE probably has a reason to be defensive of late. The Corps has been at the forefront of criticism (along with FEMA) ever since disastrous floods from Hurricane Katrina that overran the levee system in New Orleans. While the ACOE may bear the brunt of this criticism, it is merely the largest participant to a number of national habits that are bound to produce disasters: building on floodplains, under funding critical infrastructure, and tangling organizational structures amongst multiple levels and jurisdictions. Indeed, the report of the Independent Levee Investigation Team of the National Science Foundation (NSF)/Berkeley that studied the causes of the New Orleans flood after Hurricane Katrina said that the failure was the composite of an entire century of under funded flood control planning that was constructed in a distinctly unsystematic way. This was all the more accelerated after the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Betsy in 1965 (yes, the tragedy had happened before), but the subsequent flood plans approved by Congress in the late 1960’s were chronically unsupported and subject to an entire wave of setbacks for four decades: the upgrades, spearheaded by the ACOE in tandem with multiple players, were scheduled for completion this year, in 2008.

Not to let the ACOE off the hook too soon, however. Another book I randomly picked up in a bookstore (back before moving to Vienna) was The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise by Michael Grunwald. This account did the same as Barry’s book, but this time recounting the tragedy of development and land acquisition through the Florida Everglades in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. Again, the ACOE comes out looking less than stellar, as it was one of the main actors (though always supported by various business interests and other lobbies as well as Congress) in creating what some regard as one of the country’s worst environmental disasters in our history: the draining of the Florida Everglades. Interestingly, since the sixties, many environmental activists have been trying to reverse this trend, and recent news from the Florida front has groups still arguing over reversal of ACOE projects enacted half a century ago that severed the main lifeblood of the Everglades natural system. Grunwald is perhaps more emphatically Anti-ACOE, as he recounts its bullheaded internal biases that have rampant over environmental concerns for a decade. Thinking about this a year after reading, it seems that the ACOE through a century of building in the Everglades had not realized that the era of grand engineering projects, where man could totally remake the face of the earth, was in steep decline. Indeed, the floods of the Mississippi or the collapse of the Florida ecosystem suggests that perhaps we don’t really know enough to understand these big big processes that are affected by our big big projects.

Or maybe the U.S. is just incompetent and too divided. Indeed, all through the NSF report, numerous references were made to the Netherlands. Why? Well, we all of course have the idyllic picture of a Dutch kid plugging up the dikes with his toes and fingers to save the city, but it’s not that far from the truth. According to the Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP), nearly 35% of the country is actually underwater, and would be flooded on a regular basis, if it did not have incredible flood control technology. And, they are of course happy to provide their expertise in this flood control area with others, no doubt at high consulting fees. The country was inundated in 1953 as well as the 1990’s, and is of course worried if predictions about global warming and rising sea levels ring true. It only takes another foot (or less) of additional water to overrun a dam or levee. The NSF/Berkeley Investigation team pointed not only to the impressive technology investment made by the Dutch in flood protection, but more importantly, highlighted the lessons the Dutch learned in organizational structure. In New Orleans, while the ACOE was the coordinating agency, it was working with city and parish governments, as well as other flood control parties, in trying to tie together a patchwork system that had been chronically under funded for years. This under funding led to short cuts in construction that, over the years, combined to crush the system’s ability to function as a whole. The best way to do this coordination is to have effectively functioning organizations that have definitive lines of funding in order to enact projects over the long term.

Which of course brings us to another very guilty party: the U.S. Congress. With good reason, the relationship of the ACOE and the U.S. Congress has been vilified through the years, as the two often worked in tandem to build pet pork projects in districts of particular Congressmen, often devoid of environment concerns or even true need. Along the Mississippi, though, and in relation to New Orleans specifically, the U.S. Congress is the main purse, and has consistently dropped the ball, as detailed by the NSF investigation or even reports from the Congressional Research Service. While originally appropriating about $70 million for flood control in New Orleans after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, chronic delays in construction, bureaucratic stalls, and repeated under funding of the system on the part of the U.S. Congress caused the timeline to shift by 40 years, ballooning the cost to over $700 million by the time it was to be completed in 2008. In its investigative report, however, the House’s Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina mentioned little about the causes of the floods, instead concentrating on the aftermath and coordination issues that prolonged the suffering of the flood victims. In its executive summary, the report states, “No one anticipated the degree and scope of the destruction the storm would cause, even though many could and should have,” but in the very next sentence states it was a tragic failure that all levels of government were not prepared for Katrina even though it “had been predicted in theory for many years, and forecast with startling accuracy for five days.” That statement more than any shows the remarkable inability of long-term planning or historical perspective in U.S. environmental and engineering management.

Now, U.S. environmental managers, civil engineers, and climatologists are trying to figure out why a periodic flood that should only occur once every 30 or 50 years, has occurred at a magnitude equal to one that struck the Midwest only 15 years ago in 1993. Some say global warming is the root cause. Others say that over-building in floodplain areas has caused excessive manipulation of the rivers. Certainly urbanization, and the increase in speed of run-off that occurs with pavement, is a factor. And perhaps the loss of strategic wetlands in key areas, as much as that applies in the Midwest is a factor. In all it is a true systematic problem, one that our institutions have repeatedly shown an inability to manage interrelated systems between disciplines effectively. For one thing, I know how s-l-o-w-l-y bureaucratic institutions respond to change, so combining two weaknesses of governmental structures, coordination and change, is likely to pose humongous challenges. Indeed, some in our legislatures or even the institutions themselves doubt that the models which are attempting to gauge climate change in such systems are liberal scientific conspiracies that will lead to policies slow economic growth. Instead, it seems more apparent that when economic growth is allowed to drive growth that is not managed in a systematic way, tragedies occur such as the flooding of New Orleans in 2005 or the Mississippi River in 1927, and tallying the monies that Congress has outlaid for Hurricane Katrina relief indeed shows that these practices have significant cost. A classic debate regarding market-based growth versus managed growth could emerge from this line of thought, but more to the point is that many of the actors are making decisions in the absence of information. The market-based decisions of individual actors could surely change if faced with information that showed they could be putting themselves or their neighbors at serious risk by living in a subdivision that was once a floodplain.

Does the future hold continued fractured developmental policies or more holistic and systematic approaches? Indeed there is hope for those who view systematic perspectives as the way. The rise of systems models, spurred significantly by increases in computing power that can crunch the models, hold great promise for the development of overall plans that can work to predict long- and short-term changes of human engineering. The NSF has engaged funding in this area, especially through its Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, which has funded centers of excellence in, for example, Urban Ecology at Arizona State University and Adaptive Management at the University of Florida. These programs cut across disciplines of biology, chemistry, engineering, or policy to take a more holistic look at the systems that govern a city or a wetlands area, and also look outside the U.S. for inspiration as well. Perhaps a significant development is the developing field of ecological engineering, which has slowly been gaining traction since being codified by Howard Odum and others in the 1960’s. In this view, which is still being massaged, the field of engineering should draw from ecological precedents to design working human systems that are in harmony with the natural environment and utilize natural sources of energy or advantage to the greatest extent. For several of the competing definitions, you can see Odum’s original paper, or papers from William Mitsch and Sven Jørgensen or Bergen. In any case, a view of engineering that incorporates ecology, itself a holistic field, is virtually destined to become more holistic no matter how in harmony with nature. To date, much of ecological engineering has dealt with issues of water, water treatment, and water sheds, likely owing to its close associations with environmental engineering. The principles of ecological engineering should be useful in any realm, such as city design or building construction, and indeed perhaps those things are just referred to by different terms. The need is always shouted that more coordinated policies need to take place, that institutions must better align themselves to handle information. The information already exists in many instances though, so it is more a matter of education as well as coordination. In any case, the era of the engineer that can change the world is perhaps over, while an era of the world changing the engineer is perhaps just beginning.

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