Report from Louisiana: Opening the Morganza Spillway

By:  Pat Austin 

ARNAUDVILLE LA —  As preparations are made to open the Morganza Spillway this week to relieve flooding on the Mississippi River, residents on Henderson Lake in the Atchafalaya Basin were cautiously optimistic that inundation would not be as catastrophic as first feared.

“The water level here on the lake has actually gone down a little this week,” said one store owner at Basin Landing.  “We don’t think it will hit us too bad.”

Residents at the nearby community of Butte La Rose are concerned but not excessively so. The last time the Morganza Spillway was opened was in 2011 and so residents know pretty much what to expect. 

Life along the swamp was business as usual when we were there Saturday. At Henderson Lake there was a birthday party in progress at one of the houseboats, and at Turtles Bar business was steady. Nobody was really talking about the flood too much. At least four large airboats filled with tourists took off into the swamp.

As devastating as any flood is, consensus around here seems to be that the levee break in Arkansas last week may have eased the water levels in the Mississippi just enough to take away some of the worry for the Atchafalaya.

The Daily Advertiser out of Lafayette gives the background:

The Morganza Spillway was designed after the Great Flood of 1927 to draw water off the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge to keep the river from flooding downstream.

This year, as the river remained steady at flood stage in Baton Rouge for a record-setting five months, the Corps of Engineers announced plans to open the Morganza Spillway and relieve the pressure on the levees downstream from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.

The Atchafalaya River, which will meet with water from the spillway about 7 miles upstream of Butte La Rose, has been within 2 feet of flood stage in the small community since the start of March. At just under 20 feet of water, it is now nearly twice as high as this time last year.

The Corps of Engineers is expecting water from the flood will reach Butte La Rose after four or five days and the Atchafalaya River will rise 2.5 feet there, which would keep the river below the 23-foot mark seen during the flooding of 2011.

Butte La Rose and Henderson swamp are at the northern end of the expected flood area once the spillway is opened; further south concerns are much more evident as the water will flow south toward the Gulf of Mexico. Entire communities stand in the way and there will be a definite loss of crops.

Residents down in south Louisiana have varying levels of concern about the spillway opening but everyone is concerned about the levees along the Mississippi because the river has been above flood stage for over four months and really, how long can the levees be expected to stand up?  That is the true test everyone is worrying about.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation. Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25 and Twitter @paustin110.