In a year that has been packed with unwelcome news, it’s worth taking a moment to pause and remember what was happening a year ago. By May of last year, the Mississippi River had been in continuous flood for three months or longer in some locations, making it the longest lasting flood there since the Great Flood of 1927. In the Quad Cities region of Iowa and Illinois, the river recorded its longest stretch above major flood stage on record: 51 consecutive days, from March 23 through May 12. On all river systems, flood records were set in 42 locations.
On the Lower Mississippi, the flood of 2019 was the worst on record according to several measures. Parts of the Ohio River valley and Lower Mississippi received more than 2 feet of rain between January and May. Some stretches of the Lower Mississippi were above flood stage for most of the year. In Baton Rouge, La., the river rose above flood stage in the first week of January and stayed above that threshold through May, a record-long stretch that topped the record from 1927.
The Missouri River and McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System were affected even worse. By March, the governor of Nebraska had declared that the flooding had already caused the worst damage the state had ever experienced. The Missouri River basin was hit with more rains in early fall. Flooding in some parts lasted as long as seven months. In Kansas City, Mo., the flood was not declared officially over until December 12.
Bryan Day, executive director of the Port of Little Rock, notes in this issue that ongoing work dredging the Arkansas River and repairing levees from last year’s epic floods was responsible for a big spike in internal barge traffic this spring in sand, gravel and aggregate. The system will take several more years to restore to pre-flood condition. Barge traffic on the system is recovering, though slowed by the ongoing effects of the coronavirus and its impacts on oil and gas production and demand for steel coil for steel-belted radial tires.
In Omaha, Neb., the recent reopening of the N.P. Dodge Park and Marina, and the April reopening of the docks at Bellevue’s Haworth Park “signal more this year than the usual start of summer. Boat access from these two parks finally puts an end to some of the metro area recreational impacts of 2019’s catastrophic flooding on the Missouri River,” according to a local newspaper.
At the beginning of this year, Upper Midwest soils remained super-saturated, and there was real concern that 2020 could see a repeat of the floods. Everything depended on the spring rains, and everyone concerned with the rivers held their breath. Thankfully, the rains gave us a break. While several parts of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers have experienced local high water and some flooding, with temporary closures, it’s been within near-normal ranges so far.
Barge traffic this year has been better than might have been expected, according to Corps of Engineers lock and dam figures, although, as Day notes, it has been dented by non-flood-related factors, including oil price shocks and the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on the demand for some commodities.
That’s one positive takeaway from remembering last year’s floods. We also hope that in the current wrangling in Congress over infrastructure bills the effects of the floods won’t be forgotten, because they will be with us for years.