Archive for the ‘Environmental’ Category

Water, Water Everywhere

May 15, 2011

 This is the 150th year, the Sesquicentennial, since the beginning of The Civil War, there will be many battle reenactments in key states . . .

In May 2011, we took a little trip, down the Mississip. 

We saw a lot of water; and in Memphis, we had a little fun . . .

This year (2011), the earthquake in Japan and the tornadoes in Alabama and Mississippi devastated human life more significantly; but closer to my own backyard, the Mighty Mississippi is drawing lots of attention, more than it has needed since the Flood of 1993.  While there are similarities, there are differences. 

The Mississippi is the 3rd longest river in No American and it’s watershed is the 4th largest in the world.  These are the worst floods to hit the central US in 70 years.  Below Missouri, the 1993 Flood was not big news; but then, during that flood, over 1,000 of the 1,300 earthen levees failed, flooding farmland and small towns and sparing the lower river of much flooding.  Major cities like Hannibal, St Louis and Cape Girardeau in Missouri along the Mississippi River, have massive concrete flood walls with heavy metal gates.  These protected the old city centers but areas above or below these structures did not have the same protection.  

Similarly, the combination of record winter snowfalls, and the snowmelts of spring, along with heavy rains over the Midwest – have done their best, quite successfully, to cause much damage.  Here is a pretty good overview of the June to mid-August Mississippi River flood of 1993.

The USGS has some good photos of that same flood here – .  They note that on Aug 1, 1993 the largest peak discharge since 1844 was measured at St Louis on the Mississippi River.  Before 1927, there were no flood control measures in place on the river.  Most of the damage in 1993 occurred in the area from Minnesota to Missouri.  In the Fall of 1992, soil moisture levels were already high in the Central US.  Winter rain and snow contributed to the saturated soil conditions and so when spring rain and snowmelt came, it could only run off into streams and rivers.

In June 1993, the rivers were already running high and a persistent upper level atmospheric pattern developed.  Moist air flowed up from the Gulf of Mexico into the Midwest.  Other upper level disturbances were crossing the country from west to east and collided with the moisture coming up from the south.  There was wave after wave of these storms.  Between June and  August, some locations had received over 30” of rain (almost 200% above normal).

The river crested at St Louis in 1993 at 49.6 feet (over 19’ above flood stage and 6’ above the record set in 1973).  The river remained over flood stage for 2 months.  Record flooding was also occurring in Iowa along the Des Moines River (which is a tributary of the Mississippi).

Because the Mississippi River Flood of 2011 is also a significant historical event, our family decided to take a little trip this last Thursday and Friday down to Memphis, TN (where the river crested 2 days earlier – Tuesday, May 10th – at 48′). Memphis received 11” of rain between  April 25th and May 6th and a downtown airport in Memphis was submerged on May 5th when a temporary levee broke.  The Mud Island reproduction of the Mississippi River watershed is submerged, though the walkway is high and dry.  We enjoyed strolling the riverfront, where the river looks more like an ocean and took in a supernatural carriage ride (perhaps I’ll add more about that in a comment to this blog) and a trolley ride.  We stopped at King’s Palace Cafe on Beale St to eat Crawfish Etoufee and were entertained by some old black men playing authentic classic blues live.  My friend, Lucienne (in the Netherlands), found this video (without knowing anything more, than that I had listened to Blues in Memphis on Beale St).  It so perfectly captured that last part of our Memphis experience, that I had to share it with you in this blog.  There was a man in a red bowler hat, that strolled through the diners, playing his trumpet at the beginning of the band’s set.  I’m certain the guy in the video, is the guy I listened to that night.

Here’s a little video of the flood, made at Memphis, about the same time we were there.

We started our contact with the Mississippi at Cape Girardeau on Thursday morning.  This year’s flood of the Mississippi is caused by a combination of April deluges (in our area, in one 8 day period, we received 22-1/2” of rain).  The flow was made heavier by near-record winter snows in the northern states beginning to melt.  The crest in Memphis was approx 48’ – the 2nd highest on record (that record being in from 1937, when it reached 48.7’).

Before we got to Memphis though, we traveled towards New Madrid and the Bird’s Point levee.  The National Guard had checkpoints in the area and the roads were still flooded, causing the first of our backtracks to detour around impassible roads but we were able to reach the river on more than one occasion, where we saw livestock having to make due with levee hills and river water, instead of their usual pasture and ponds in the floodplain.  The plan to breech the levee was highly controversial in Missouri.  The State of Missouri asked the US Supreme Court to intervene with the US Army Corp of Engineers’ plan to intentionally blow up the levee.  The lower court and the US Circuit Court of Appeals had both already ruled against Missouri, giving the Corps the right to breech the levee based upon a 1928 law.

Here’s a YouTube about that breeching of the Bird’s Point levee – (the video didn’t seem to embed on my preview and so, just in case, here is a url

Besides the flooding of the Mississippi itself, there has been record flooding on the Ohio River (which merges with the Mississippi at Cairo).  Harrah’s casino at Metropolis IL on the Ohio River is an island in the flood now.  They have donated $100,000 to local chapters of the Red Cross.  The Ohio River has been so high that barges are passing over dams on the river.  The Ohio River crested at Cairo IL at 60.5’ on May 1st.  That exceed the 100-yr flood stage and is the highest flood in history.  The previous record was 59.5’ in 1937.  So this was the highest flood height ever recorded at Cairo (records go back 100 years) on the Mississippi, due to the effect of the Ohio River converging.  The new mayor of Cairo (only just sworn in on May 2nd) had evacuated the entire town of Cairo, before the US Army Corps acted.  Previous records at New Madrid, MO (which crested at approx 44’) have been – 48’ in 1937, 44.6’ in 1913, 43.6’ in 1975, 43.5’ in 1950 and 42.9’ in 1997.

The blasting of the Bird’s Point levee did seem to help with water at Cairo, IL dropping almost 2’, down from a record of 61.72’.  The water was still lapping at I-55 in that area, when we drove through.  It was still sandbagged, as well.  We drove through water, that was still over the road (though not deep) there.  I would assume it got a bit higher there on the Interstate, when they first blew the levee.  Also establishing crest records were Caruthersville, MO and Poncahontas AR (along the Black River, where a levee failed near Poplar Bluff, MO).  Down in the boothill of Missouri, one riverfront business in small rural town had a sign in the window of his sandbagged store front “Play Nice Old Man River” (video is Paul Robeson in Hammerstein’s Showboat song) – (the video didn’t seem to embed on my preview and so, just in case, here is a url

It is still the poorest of the poorest that are most devastated by Old Man River and his ways.  Yes, Old Man River keeps rolling along.  He’s not in any hurry to reach the sea.  The story is still unfolding, and far from complete – at Vicksburg MS, the crest is expected at 57.5’ on May 19th (topping the 56.2’ historic record set in 1927).  The Arkansas and Yazoo rivers have contributed additional water flow.

The Army Corp of Engineers is faced with yet another unpopular decision.  If it doesn’t act, the predicted crest at New Orleans around May 22nd would be anywhere from 19.5’ to 25’ (these predictions are constantly changing, of concern there in New Orleans is that the top of the levees are approx 20’).  We heard a lot of news locally in Memphis, about the plan to open a spillway to relieve the river in Louisiana.  There are even concerns about the river choosing a new channel to the sea.  Baton Rouge and New Orleans would likely flood, if something isn’t done.  The flooding of farmland and rural towns would prompt further evacuations and flash flood warnings in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway yesterday, channeling Mississippi floodwaters into the Atchafalaya River basin.  This is “built-in” to their system about 45 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.  The last time that they had to do this was in 1973

Around 2,500 people live directly on the flood path of the diverted water, which could also impact another 22,500 people and 11,000 buildings, as well as 2,264 oil wells which produce almost 20,000 barrels of crude a day.  But it does take the pressure off the cities and numerous oil refineries further south in Louisiana.   The number of huge oil and chemical processing plants in that region is staggering; and so, the opening of the spillway is realistically as much about big corporations with huge financial clout, as it is about any of “the people” living in New Orleans and Baton Rouge (but making it about the people is better received by the masses ;p and doubtless, it IS about them as well).

The engineers estimated that had they not opened the spillway, New Orleans would have been swamped in as much as 20′ of water.  If you are interested in learning more – about the Army Corps Mississippi system – there is a good deal of information in this New Yorker article – The Control of Nature: Atchafalaya.

I have a friend, Denise, who lives north of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain; and I checked in with her yesterday.  She wrote back –

“Oy, that river is something, huh?  I’ve gained a whole new respect for the Mighty Mississippi!! They finally opened up the Morganza Spillway upriver from Baton Rouge today around 4, I believe.  That has diverted all of that massive amount of rushing water to split so that we won’t get the full force of it all down in the cities along the river.  It’s a sad thing that all of that farmland and smaller communities will be flooded ‘on purpose’ to save the big cities, but I do understand that they are saving the greatest population areas.  Doesn’t make one feel any better about it though.  On the news this afternoon around 6, they were reporting that the river had already crested in New Orleans, and is expected to crest in Baton Rouge on the 16th, so apparently it’s working, but the rivers are SO HIGH it is eery.  Now, as long as the levees hold! Luckily we’re not expecting *any* rain, which is a very good thing right now!”

I’m not sure about the “river had already crested” part.  My understanding was that it was not due to do that, for a few days yet.  I saw a graphic in Memphis on their commercial TV showing the river was moving rather slowly.  I think the crest in Vicksburg was not expected before Thurs, the 19th; but perhaps it is the opening of this spillway, that allows that determination regarding New Orleans.

Below is a picture of the current level of flooding at the Old Train Depot in downtown Vicksburg MS, just yesterday (Sat, May 14th).

I found this NASA photo taken from the Space Station of the flooded fields in Missouri from the Bird’s Point levee breech by the Army Corps of Engineers.  This is actually from the day (Thurs, May 12th) that my family passed through the area of Caruthersville, MO (this photo shows just north of there – note that north on this photo is the lower right corner of the image).

Below is an image from Vicksburg – the “Flood Mark” on the river flood wall is the 1927 historic flood level that caused the creation of the Army Corps flood control system of locks, dams and spillways.

Now here’s an interesting aside, which I personally attribute to Nature’s innate wisdom – at (note, this is the abbreviation for New Orleans, Louisiana) I found an article titled “Audubon Park Bird Island abandoned”

Is it related to the weather and flooding ?  I would hazard a “yes” on this one.  Of course, it could also be somehow due to adverse conditions for food continuing in the gulf, from the BP Deep Horizon incident of a year ago.

The Audubon Park Bird Island in New Orleans, LA houses one of the most prominent rookeries in the region for great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, herons and double-crested cormorants.  On our own journey, we did see such birds scattered about the receding floodwaters in Missouri, Kentucky and Northern Tennessee.  Anyway, the article says that “some birds indeed arrived at the island early this year, began mating, buidling nests and laying eggs but in early April, they all mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind nests and eggs.”  You can read more at the link above.


Taum Sauk

October 15, 2010

Our human body is 55% to 78% water, depending on body size.  We cannot live more than about a week without drinking appropriate water (fresh, clean and not salty).  Freshwater ecosystems provide food and livelihood for many of the Earth’s people.  Approx 70% of our planet Earth’s surface is covered in water, most is salty water in our oceans.  All of the life forms found on earth are believed to have originated in some way connected to water.  

People use water in many ways – for agriculture, for generating energy, for recreation and for sanitation – to name a few of the ways we use water.  As an environmentalist, I am aware of how man’s actions impact the quality of water.  Of how our insatiable need for fuel leads to polluting our oceans and waterways with oil – not just, as in the recent Gulf of Mexico disaster; but for a very long time now in Africa and South America.  These negligent activities impact real people in real ways – their food sources, their clean drinking water, their livelihoods and their general health and well-being.  Often these are what is called indigenous people, native humans who have inhabited those areas for a very long time.  Sadly, too often, corporations play shell games with ownership changes, to avoid facing the costs of cleaning up after they have finished taking the resources they desire. 

There is no way that a corporation, the responsible, non-human, legal entity (yes, I know there are humans controlling it)  can care in the same way a rooted people cares.  How can they care in the same way, that the people living there must care ?  It isn’t a reasonable expectation.

As a child of the Southwestern United States desert, I have always been highly aware of the role of water in my life and of the need to use it wisely.  Water and the impoundment of it, remains a serious issue in the geographical area where I was born and grew up. 

While the general focus for this year’s Blog Action Day is clean drinking water, and I have already acknowledged the importance of that and some of the adverse conditions impacting the availability of that, I am going to use my own blog space today, to talk about this issue of impoundment.  In Missouri, I experience an abundance of water – in perennial streams and rivers, and in having a multitude of springs of all sizes – we are very blessed by an abundance of this resource, which grows more critical in its quality and availability globally.  The United Nations expects demand to outstrip supply by more than 30% around 2040, with global water consumption is doubling every 20 years.

In the state where I reside (Missouri), water is used to produce electricity.  This is considered a positive effort, decreasing our dependence on oil and coal, for that necessity of modern life.  The most unique generating facility is not far from where I live, on a mountain top called Taum Sauk about 90 miles from St Louis.  This facility is notable for being a pure pump-back operation with no natural primary flow for generation.  This blog is the story about how that impoundment failed, what the damage from that was and of the surprising recovery and benefits of that event.  It is a story of how Life improves itself; and in sharing this story with you, I hope to inspire optimism that recovery even from the worst aspects of man’s use of water, is always possible.

This is a satellite image taken of the Taum Sauk Reservoir and Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park before the breech happened.  The dammed reservoir is in the upper center right.  (Photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Natural Resources)

A satellite image taken just 8 days later on Dec. 22, 2005. Notice how the water literally stripped the land of everything it had and deposited it in the river, shut-ins and the lower reservoir. (Photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Natural Resources)

I was sound asleep when our weather radio came on warning of flash flooding on the Black River.  This seemed strange to me, as it had not been raining.  Only later, did I learn that the Taum Sauk dam had failed at 5:12 am that morning (Dec. 14, 2005), and unleashed a huge environmental impact, as over 1.3 billion gallons of water cresting on a 20 foot high wave headed down the steep mountainside, towards the East Fork of the Black River.  The reservoir was emptied  in just 12 minutes.  The rush of water began destroying everything in its path, all the way through Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park.  The 5,000 acre/foot lake was built by AmerenUE between 1960-1963.  The upper reservoir is drained through a pipeline in the middle of the mountain and runs through electric generating turbines and the “spent” water is deposited in a lower reservoir.

I had visited the original dam more than once, as well as the nature center on the way up that mountain.  At the time, there was no restriction to just driving up on a whim.  There was no security at the site.  On Aug 7, 2010 I joined many others in touring the new $490 million dam at Taum Sauk.  The facility is now highly secure (which put the nature center out of access – its assets are being moved to other locations).  Even though a lot of damage occurred to take the old dam unintentionally out-of-service, what has resulted from the event, appears to be only positive – in terms of how much safer the dam structure is now (it was completely rebuilt from the ground up, there is a new routing for water with a spillway, if the dam were ever to over-top again and multiple fail-safe redundant sensors).  AmerenUE’s officials claim that the new dam may actually last thousands of years because it has been strongly rebuilt (and is the largest roller-compacted concrete dam in North America, using almost as much concrete as was used in the building of Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, NV).  The new dam was recognized by the US Society on Dams with an Award of Excellence in the Constructed Project.

On Aug 7, 2010, we also visited Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, so that we had a more “complete” understanding of the whole event and what has happened since.  I learned that over 8 feet of sand and clay plus 15 feet of downed trees ended up deposited in the state park after the water was no longer pouring through.  The force of the volume of water pouring through the breech, unbelievably, moved boulders, even some as big as cars, all the way into the park.  The debris created a dam causing a temporary 6 acre lake to exist, where one had not been before.  The unique rock formations that are the swimming hole, where crystal clear waters have mostly delighted hot summer visitors, were murky and full of soil that had been carved from the mountain. 

Above is how the park looked before the breech.  The rushing water filled the campground not only with natural materials but with the concrete and rebar that had been the dam.  The Park Superintendent’s home was washed away down to its foundation.  The family (including wife and 3 children) were deposited in fields downstream (remember it was December when this happened – good that there weren’t the masses of tourists, bad that it was very cold).  In the photo below, you can see what was left of this home’s foundation (area that is orange).  The only structure that “sort of” survived was a vault toilet, which still lost its rear wall but the fixtures, rolls of toilet paper and even a flypaper strip remained.

To the park service employees, one of their saddest losses was a 9 acre Fen.  This is a combination of seep forest and calcareous fens found in the flood plain of the East Fork of the Black River.  Seasonal floods pond rain water and calcareous ground water seepage.  Seep forests are rare in Missouri, hence the special attention this area received.

Union Electric (now AmerenUE) built Taum Sauk between 1960-1963, claiming it did not require any Federal permits to do so.  That contention was challenged but in the meantime, the facility was opened without federal inspection of its construction.  In 1965, the case had reached the US Supreme Court and the decision was that it was under federal jurisdiction, though its faulty design was allowed to remain.  It was faulty because the earthen dam was not of bedrock but “dirty fill”, a high concentration of sand, which was substandard, even by 1960s standards.  Other dams of such design had previously failed in a similar way.

While this was not the main cause of the breech (which was the failure of the computer system sensors to indicate the reservoir was full and therefore, the pumps kept bringing up more water), when it finally over-topped, the faulty construction facilitated severe erosion that led to a 656 ft gap in the dam. 

Contributing to the failure was minor leakage through the dam wall that had caused the breech area to slump lower than remaining walls (this was a known problem that had been addressed by lining the reservoir with a membrane in 2004).  Only months before the failure and collapse, company memos indicated observation of an overflow in the breech area, caused by wave action related to winds from Hurricane Rita in late Sept; and in Oct, it was noted that the gauges were malfunctioning.  There is evidence that a person on duty “raised” the gauges and that the gauges had been moved when the investigators arrived.

The Independent Panel of Consultants who investigated the breech also noted the omission of any kind of spillway from the design.   The Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Missouri Parks Assn were parties to lawsuits (including attempts to deny a rebuilding of the dam).  Eventually, AmerenUE agreed in 2006 to pay $15 million after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined that negligence (operating errors) had led to the overflow and collapse of the structure.  In 2007, Ameren UE agreed to pay approx $180 million to settle a suit brought by Missouri’s then Attorney General (now governor) Jay Nixon.  Certainly, some of those proceeds went into the rebuilding and recovery of the Johnson Shut-Ins State Park’s new and well furnished amenities.

In spite of AmerenUEs reckless behavior, their request to rebuild was approved and construction began in 2007.  Insurance covered most of the cost of rebuilding.  The utility was prohibited from billing their customers for any part of the expenses the failure and collapse caused the company.

The Johnson Shut-Ins State Park was quite primitive before the breech.  The park totals 8,549 acres and was donated to the state of Missouri by Joseph Desloge (a well-known lead mining name, who was also a St Louis civic leader and conservationist).  Since the breech, its recovery has turned it into a modern, state of the art, recreational and educational destination.   Its educational value was greatly enhanced by the disaster itself. 

Before the event, the park was known primarily for its water filled, shoots and slides of rock, to frolick upon on hot, summer days. 

There is now a beautiful new visitor/interpretive center and a new and re-located to safer ground, campground, just in case.  I will admit that it is a bit disconcerting to see the signs posted along the trails indicating a person should immediately head 1,500 ft uphill (not sure of that distance but it is significant considering the rough and steep terrain there), if they hear a warning siren sound.  There are plans to connect the park with the larger Ozark Trail and to create a backpack camp.

During the recovery effort, mangled trees were mulched and truckloads of sand and sediment were removed.  Native grasses and saplings were planted.  New topsoil was brought in.  Wetland ecologists and soil biologists were brought in to determine how to restore the fen, which was under several feet of sand and sediment.  An industrial vacuum was used to remove this material in some places, in the more sensitive areas only shovels, rakes and wheelbarrows could be used as an attempt was made to salvage the unique vegetation buried there.  Time was of the essence, for these plants had to be salvaged in only a few months, by spring.  Recovering the fen was the park’s first major recovery success.

The primary educational benefit comes from 900 million years of earth history, in the form of geology that includes rocks from at least 3 geologic periods.  These are now visible in the scour channel that remains from the breech.  This is an opportunity for geologists that happens rarely.  The scour channel is now the newest and one of the more fascinating features of the park.  It is the reminder of how the water came down so very fast, from that steep slope at the top of this channel; and then, spread out when it hit the flatter valley floor.  As the flood slowed, the water started dropping all the solid material it had carved away from the mountain.  Walking among the angular, basketball-sized rocks, of rhyolite, dolomite, granite, sandstone and chert, is still difficult while hiking in the scour channel.

Volcanoes created the St Francis Mountains (I learned at the center that there is a chain of 3 Calderas in our region, south of St Louis) erupting 1.4 to 1.5 billion years ago, which formed the Rhyolite rock that became the mountains (which were higher than the Rockies at one time).  Not long after, holes left underground by these explosions began to collapse, a pattern than continued for centuries. 

The volcanic mountains were later covered by a sea (long before the glaciers melted, fish swam there or dinosaurs roamed) and some part of that 530 million yr old beach was near the top of the reservoir mountain, before the breech occurred.   This period, when the Midwest was underwater, was just before the supercontinents began to pull apart.  The igneous rock was then covered by thousands of feet of sedimentary rock such as limestone, sandstone, shale and dolomite.

In the low places, the swift Black River has created a feature known in Missouri as a Shut-in.  This is a place where hard rock, in this case igneous, shuts in the flow of the river.  At Johnson Shut-Ins, the water’s action of swirling and churning has created potholes, water slides and miniature canyon like gorges.  My family hiked the Scour Trail from Route N to an overlook about midway up the channel, before we told the children about the swimming hole.  We had not come dressed for swimming but my boys all swam in their shorts and pants without their shirts.  The shoots and slides are wonderfully clear and clean once more.  We would have liked to have gone up the scour channel a bit further, towards the reservoir mountain but it was brutally hot, giving us an excuse to return for another hike in milder weather.