Mississippi Floods: Missing Natural Sponges

May 15, 2011 By Arati Rao

Everything is connected. All actions have consequences. All consequences teach lessons. Case in point: the Mississippi floods, rivers, natural floodplains, wetlands and destruction. And what lesson is it teaching us?

The flooding woes

Water levels in the Mississippi river are extremely high. This river originates in the state of Minnesota and flows all the way down meeting the Gulf of Mexico, in the state of Louisiana. Heavy rains in the north have been the cause and the communities living along the river bank are seeing the “worst flooding in eighty years.”

Levees and spillways which were constructed half a century ago are containing the water in some places but not in all. Levees are huge walls, like a dam, that are built along a river to contain the water level. Spillways are gates that can be opened in levees to release the water when the level gets too high. The Army Corps of Engineers decided to blast an earthen levee in the state of Missouri to prevent high waters from reaching major cities. But this will inundate (drown) about 130,000 acres of rich farmland and destroy about 90 homes.

It was not meant to be this way. Could this have been prevented? These are questions being asked and there are some very good answers. We simply have to listen and learn.  

Where are our natural sponges?

Flooding after the breach of the levee Photo Courtesy NASA

Flood-control structures like levees and spillways have been necessary only because the natural control for floods has been taken away. What do we mean? Well, there are these areas called “watersheds.” These areas contain the land’s drainage. The rivers, lakes, and streams surrounded by natural spill-zones (area around the rivers where water is allowed to overflow) are together called “wetlands.”

When snow melts or it rains very heavily and rivers overflow, these areas – including marshes and forestlands – act as sponges.  They absorb the water, remove the contaminants and slowly release it into the groundwater system and nearby streams. These wetlands help the levees do their work. It is a natural system built by nature to control the effect of floods. 

Now, what has happened in the last century? Such wetlands all over the world have been “disappearing.” How? Well, we have been “reclaiming” them for farms, houses and other human activity. As a result, there is no place for the excess water to go. Which means our levees will have to be stronger and we have to hope that the levees hold and rivers don’t run very high. Wetlands are the most productive ecosystems on earth. And we have lost about 80% of our wetlands in many states - and the destruction is continuing. 

Lessons to learn

Graphic from Solcomhouse.com. See more info on Wetlands here: http://water.epa.gov/type/wetlands/index.cfm

The US floods in 1993 and 2008 caused levees to break and immense loss due to flooding. And even then people said that they would need to “learn from it” and protect and restore wetlands so that annual floods do not affect human habitation. But, even more wetlands have been “reclaimed” since 1993 for human activity! And in 2011, the losses continue. Restoring wetlands will control floods better – in addition to engineering responses like levees, and will serve as a great groundwater replenishment (we all know how groundwater is being depleted everywhere – see this article).

So what needs to be done? Well, for starters, we need a study of the impact to the ecosystem and then plan ecological steps (not just engineering ones) to prevent these catastrophes.

yot   5 years ago

Did anyone get hurt? So sad.

ashleym   5 years ago

Did anybody get seriously injured?

Sammy02   5 years ago

Why build levees if there are natural ways of controlling floods?

Arati Rao   5 years ago

Good question, Sammy02. 

The reason has to do with history. Once land has been "claimed" for farming and settlements, the river has to be contained in other ways, that is, with levees. If there were no levees, the river would overflow and flood the lands which it traditionally flooded. But, because of the reclamation (land "reclaimed" from nature for human use) now, this would disrupt the farmers and the settled folks. Hence, levees and other artificial methods of flood control now are a must. 

dinak   5 years ago

Its not fair for the other people that dont deserve bad stuff to happen to them and even animals.

felipef   5 years ago

it is amazing that even with our technology, we are still powerless against almighty mother nature

Breigh Richardson   5 years ago

Thats CRAZY!!! I wonder why they did that?? That flood must have been terrible! I can't imagine what those people are going through!!

kryslyn chatelain   5 years ago

I feel bad

damonc   5 years ago

after this i think that they should definnitely put in wet lands so that they will have "natural sponges"

mahdia   5 years ago

Man this Mississippi Floods is really bad.

ashleym   5 years ago

I want to know what happened to the gate, and why they opened it!

jessica   5 years ago

i feel so bad bc why did they open the gate

morgan   5 years ago

I am sorry about the flood i hope the water level goes down

Ryan_4   5 years ago

that was a terrible event. everybody lost something

marshall   5 years ago

I am going to start helping the Earth.

ashleym   5 years ago

need to be more careful!

rebeccac   5 years ago

Thats really not good.

kenn   5 years ago

Sad. Very sad. Floods are terrible. I`ve never been in one but it must be really scary for a street to be covered with water. But it`s really confusing. It`s amazing how dangerous rainy days can be.

kenn   5 years ago

I hope nobody was hurt in that rain storm flooding. I don`t want it to happen again.

ashleym   5 years ago

Ya thats what i thought! maybe they DIDNT open it but it opened because of natural destruction?? or maybe they didnt think that would happen??? This is weird! but thank goooodness there were waterbeds!

rishikak   5 years ago

That flood must have been horrible!
I wonder if anyone died
Who opened the gates!?!?!?!?!

Editor   5 years ago

The gates were opened by the Army Corps of Engineers -- an organization that is part of the U.S government. They work on construction and maintenance of large building projects like dams, canals, and military faciities. Their goal is to do what it takes to reduce the damage to property and lives.

Opening the gate was the right thing to do, otherwise the walls of the levee might have broken because there was so much water flowing through.

ryanp   5 years ago

thats not going to be good for a long time

damonc   5 years ago

why not put wet lands?????

Editor   5 years ago

Wetlands are the marshes and swamps that are on the banks of a river. It is not easy to recreate them, not to mention expensive. And then you will need to move people and clear homes built along the river. Perhaps, the best we can do is to understand the importance of wetlands and preserve what we have left.

michaelk   5 years ago

Super sad.

damonc   5 years ago

i know right??

lisar   5 years ago

did anyone get hurt?

Editor   5 years ago

Since the water was let out in a controlled, there was sufficient notice given to allow people to evacuate their homes.

damonc   5 years ago

I don't know but I do hope no one got hurt kind of like you

felipef   5 years ago

this is very sad

johnw   5 years ago

I think they had to open the gate because it would have broke any ways. I would hate to live there THAT WAS BAD

pipsqueek   5 years ago

that is sad

Shivam   5 years ago

I feel sorry the people whose homes were lost

lydiaf   5 years ago

That looks like a lot of damage!

Arjun   5 years ago

That part of the US has been tormented by floods, hurricanes...you name it. I wish the best of luck to those who live in that area.

Arjun   5 years ago

So I assume that the wetlands are a more efficient way of drainage than levees. Are the wetlands disappearing because we are using them for our own purposes?

Editor   5 years ago

Wetlands are a natural protection. For lack of understanding or ignoring the issue, people are clearing wetlands and settling closer to river fronts and over time, problems worsen. If there is one force we cannot tame, it is nature!

kirstenc (not verified)   5 years ago

omg that is so horrible

niyam (not verified)   5 years ago

i do not like floods they cause problems

alyssah   5 years ago

yeah why would they open they gate.. they should have known it would flood i mean coming

shyanneh   5 years ago

everybody is saying that the wrold is going to end but i will cry if it does because i have a wedding

abigailq   5 years ago

i`m very sad for all the people affected by the flood and how people were hurt

lydiaf   5 years ago

I hope no one got hurt!

Editor   5 years ago

Good question from so many of you. Why did they open the gate?

This is actually believe it or not, a way of controlling floods and heavy damage. The Mississippi river flows down to the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans. The engineers are releasing water slowly by opening one or two gates at a time and flooding farmlands and areas that dont have many people. 

Now, if they did not do that, the water pressure will build up so much that it can break through the walls of the levees (structures that control the river). By controlling the pressure, engineers are making sure that the river does not flood more populated cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana, and the numerous oil refineries and chemical plants along the lower part of the Mississippi.

We hope that was clear. If you don't understand, please feel free to ask questions.

maddieq   5 years ago

OMG so huge. Why don't they just shut the gate if they opened it!

waterg   5 years ago

that's sad and weird that they opened the gate i wonder if it destroyed a lot of things.

shyanneh   5 years ago

i feel realy bad for the mississippi river floods i hope it does not get worse

nasht (not verified)   5 years ago

oooohhhh i would hate to be the people who live there

paigec   5 years ago

yeah why did they open the gate they must of known that it would flood...

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Read more about the important role that wetlands play in our lives on the US Environmental Protection Agency's site, here.