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Opening Mississippi River spillway would save cities, hurt rural areas

BUTTE LA ROSE, La. — Water is a way of life here. You settle beside a river, on soft, fertile soil barely more than a swamp, and it's understood that you're going to get flooded. But when that flooding is intentional, orchestrated by the government to save the big cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge from their own inundations, it has an especially cruel twist.

"It's depressing. But I can't stop it," Greg Kirsch said Thursday as a maintenance man disconnected the water on his 16-by-80-foot trailer, which sits in the shady depths of the Atchafalaya River basin. Soon, the trailer would be hauled away for safekeeping on higher ground, and Kirsch's way of life would be another casualty in the slow-motion disaster expected to reach here next week if a spillway is opened to divert water from the flood-swollen Mississippi River.

"That's what the Morganza is for," Kirsch said of the Morganza Spillway some 50 miles north. The spillway, designed to redirect Mississippi River water to prevent flooding in Baton Rouge and other population centers downstream, has been opened just once, in 1973.

A tree across the road from Kirsch's trailer illustrates the threat. About 8 feet up its trunk, a bright pink ribbon marks the anticipated water level by Monday if the spillway is opened. By Wednesday, the water would be at least 2 feet higher.

Officials may decide as early as today whether to open the spillway, a move based in part on the volume of water pouring downriver, as measured in cubic feet per second at Morganza, and on the river's level in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The so-called "trigger point" for opening the spillway would be reached when the flow volume is 1.5 million cubic feet per second.

By Thursday, it was moving at 1.41 million cubic feet per second, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, an increase over Wednesday's measurement. By May 23, if the spillway is not opened, the river is forecast to be at 19.5 feet in New Orleans, just 6 inches below the tops of the levees protecting the city.

Opening Mississippi River spillway would save cities, hurt rural areas 05/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 13, 2011 12:25am]

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