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During the recent floods along the Arkansas River, Arkansans became familiar with the levee system and terms such as "breach." Front-page headlines in this newspaper resembled those one might have seen on front pages across the state during the Great Flood of 1927.

It's likely, though, that few Arkansans understand the enormous role that levees and drainage districts played in the state's development, particularly the eastern half of Arkansas.

As Donna Brewer Jackson wrote in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "Without drainage, the land was useless for farming. Early residents realized that once the land was cleared of the timber and drained, the rich alluvial soil would be productive for a variety of crops, especially cotton. Initially, early settlers attempted to build makeshift barriers to halt the powerful floodwaters, but these attempts were ultimately useless. Although the line of levees along the Mississippi River expanded during the 19th century, the water always found a weak spot and inundated the region."

The first levee along the Mississippi River was built at New Orleans between 1718 and 1727. It was just more than a mile long. The levees there kept getting higher, but storms still destroyed parts of the city in 1812, 1819, 1837, 1856, 1893, 1909, 1915, 1947, 1956, 1965, 1969 and 2005.

In 1850, Congress appropriated $50,000 to complete two surveys that would promote flood protection along the Mississippi River. The Civil War era, however, saw levees fall into a state of disrepair.

In 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission. It consisted of three officers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, three civilians, and one officer from what was then called the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. The commission, with Sam Angel of Lake Village serving as a civilian member, is still active.

"Nearly 30 locks and dams hold back water in the river's upper reaches," Todd Frankel wrote last year in The Washington Post. "Every river bend to the south is lined by concrete to slow the water's corrosive force. Levees corset thousands of miles of riverbanks, and 170 bridges run above. All of this infrastructure is aimed at permitting barge traffic and protecting farms and cities. Most of it is decrepit. ... A move to tame one portion of the river can create chaos for people somewhere else along its 2,350-mile path, and in that precarious balance is the key to understanding the competing interests and enduring problems that vex the entire country."

R.D. James, the New Madrid, Mo., farmer who was appointed by President Trump as the assistant secretary of the Army overseeing the Corps of Engineers, told Frankel: "To understand America at this time, you have to understand the river."

The main levee system consists of 1,607 miles of levees along the Mississippi River and another 596 miles along the Arkansas and Red rivers. Under what's known as the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, levees were constructed by the federal government and maintained by local interests. The system is designed to protect more than 4 million Americans, 1.5 million homes and 33,000 farms.

"At least $7 billion more is needed, supporters say, for works including raising the height along 370 miles of levees and floodwalls," Frankel wrote. "They've been making their case for years. Others want to fund different projects--putting the first floodways on the upper Mississippi or expanding locks or undertaking a total rethinking of how the river is managed. And no one knows from where the money for any of this will come."

Frankel noted that the Mississippi River Commission has been "staging week-long river inspection trips since shortly after it was created in 1879--and its ability to control the river has been doubted almost as long."

In 1883, Mark Twain wrote: "Ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey."

In Arkansas, various entities added levees along streams throughout the state to complement the work of the Corps of Engineers. A levee and drainage district was created in Chicot County in 1883, in Clay and Greene counties in 1887, and in Desha and Phillips counties in 1891. Dozens of additional districts, many of them now inactive, were established in the decades that followed.

"Organization of drainage districts required landowners to petition the county courts to place a lien on the lands through a court order," Jackson wrote. "The court order ensured that improvement taxes would be paid. Money collected from the taxes paid the principle; it and interest on bonds issued by the drainage district, along with proceeds from the bond sales, were used to build the levees and drainage canals. The drainage districts also had the power to hire deputies to patrol levees to keep sabotage and vandalism at a minimum."

Mississippi County provides a stark example of the difference these districts made. Prior to levees being built, about 5 percent of the land was being farmed. One report called the county "a hopeless permanent mosquito- and malaria-infested swamp." After levees were built and land was drained, it became the largest cotton-producing county in the country.

But as geologist Nicholas Pinter told National Public Radio last year: "Just because you live behind a great big, strong levee doesn't mean there's no chance of getting flooded. There are two types of levees--those that have failed and those that will fail."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 06/29/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Breaching the levee

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