How Do You Control One of Nature’s Biggest Rivers?

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The 2,350-mile long Mississippi River is the world’s fourth longest river and it functions as America’s economic lynchpin. As one Missouri farmer put it, “To understand America at this time, you have to understand the river.” For the Washington Post, journalist Todd C. Frankel and a group of photographers took a close look at the river’s problems and ongoing struggles to solve them. The obvious problems are navigation and flood control, but this massive river historically shifted channels and meandered widely, so, against all logic, people continuously labor to keep its course in place.

Concrete enforces the river’s banks, levees hold back floods, and locks and bridges make it navigable. Much of that aged infrastructure needs improvement. The river drains parts of 31 states, and with so many competing interests, it’s hard to coordinate efforts, let alone fund them. Ecology complicates things: changes in one section of the river often affect other sections, especially when it comes to levees. The Army Corps of Engineers has always treated flood control on the Mississippi as a battle, but many people who rely on the river view that as an ineffective strategy which creates more problems than it solves. Trump wants a $1.5 billion infrastructure plan to fund vague, various repairs, but why should anyone trust him?

In the past seven years, the Mississippi River Valley has been hit with 100-, 200- and 500-year floods — ones that had a 1 percent or less chance of happening in each timespan — that caused damages of more than $50 billion. Disasters along the river “have become persistent and systemic,” noted a group representing 75 cities from 10 states in a report last year.

The White House response sketched out in Trump’s infrastructure plan is inadequate, said the group, the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. It actually makes it harder to fund new flood protections by slashing the federal government’s project cost-sharing from the current 50 to 80 percent down to 20 percent, said Colin Wellenkamp, the group’s executive director. So for every $1 in federal funds, local and state governments would need to chip in $4.

“That’s interesting,” Wellenkamp said dryly. “How are we going to be saddled with that?”

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