To Fight Droughts and Floods, Dam the Mississippi


It's time to dam the Mississippi.

On September 6, the New York Times reported Central Texans’ plight as they deal with the most severe drought in years. The population is adopting extreme measures to conserve water. While companies are cutting back on production from five to four days a week to reduce the need for water to clean equipment, restaurants are serving water to patrons only upon request.

Though the drought hit Texas the worst this year, much of the American Southwest including Nevada, Arizona, California, and New Mexico face similar problems. Years of drought in Colorado have led to the drying up of much of the Colorado River’s tributaries, and in 2010, Lake Mead recorded its lowest water levels since 1937. The reservoir topped out at only 56% capacity.

However, 1,500 miles east of Lake Mead there is a picture of stark contrast. The mighty Mississippi floods every year as is historically the case, but the floods are now extending much farther and have been causing much more damage in recent years. On both sides, farmland and crops suffer or are destroyed. While people in these flood zones along the Mississippi desperately try to keep water out, in Texas, residents are trucking water in from outside.

As an alternative, the government would be better served to implement a large one-time public works project to end this cycle.

This past May, the Army Corp of Engineers faced tough decisions when diverting floodwaters in order to save towns. The answer, many times, is to inundate farmland and divert water to areas around population hubs. For many residents up and down the river, boarding and packing up belongings creates an eerie feeling of déjà-vu. In the summer of 2008, cities up and down the Mississippi found their sandbagging efforts to be insufficient. Iowa cities like Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, and Rockford faced massive rebuilding once the flooding subsided. These continued historic floods, year after year, will require more and more disaster relief funds to offset the damage.

Why not create a pipeline transporting the overflow from the Mississippi to the drought-stricken regions of the west?

This is not a new idea. Paul Lander, an analyst at Sustainable Collaborations Group based in Denver supports such a solution. What are the issues stopping the proposal? Upfront costs are one. With a government worried about cutting deficits, a multi-billion dollar project seems anything but appealing. The saving grace, however, is the 9.1% unemployment rate. Highway signs (as well as Thursday’s jobs speech from President Barack Obama) call for and promote public works projects that are “putting America back to work,” but unemployment hasn’t ebbed as a result. If the Great Depression had the Hoover Dam, why not let the Great Recession have the Obama Pipeline? A massive infrastructure project of this scale, over a time period of at least a few years, is sure to employ thousands of workers in states like Nevada, where unemployment runs at 13%.

Sustaining the transport costs once the project is completed is the easier task. Instead of damage relief to crops, land, and cities caused by drought and flood, the government could use portions of the funds for upkeep of the pipeline. Preempting the disaster is sure to offset production costs quickly and over time generate a return to pay for the initial costs of the project.  

This seems like a win-win public works project with lasting benefits.

Photo Credit: Kasia Broussalian