River Commission Should Support Change in Federal Law to Reduce Long-Term Harm to Mississippi’s 16th Section Land

By Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann

Over the past several years, I have witnessed devastating changes in the more than 3,500 acres of 16th Section Public School Trust lands along the Mississippi River.

Artificial flooding of the Mississippi River is causing significant damage, including increased siltation on the land, deterioration of wildlife habitats, tree mortality, and changes in timber stand composition to undesirable species.  This damage negatively impacts timber sales and leasing of 16th Section land.  All money raised through 16th Section land goes directly to our public schools, so when our 16th Section land suffers, our children suffer.

The problem, however, goes beyond school revenue. Flooding is impacting oil and gas operations by forcing wells to close during periods of high water.  Agricultural losses and crop insurance costs for farmers are significantly higher than in past decades.

Amid these significant problems, there may be a solution: using the Old River Control Structure (located in Louisiana across from the south western tip of Mississippi) as a means of reducing flooding.  Since the 1950s, a federal mandate has set the diversion percentages used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Old River Control Structure at 70 percent down the Mississippi River and 30 percent down the Atchafalaya River.  A more flexible process allowing for changes to be made based on Old River Control Structure operations, scientific data and hydrological studies, impact on states, and other relevant factors, may reduce the damage currently born by Mississippians.

Expanded use of the Old River Control Structure may also be the best option for flood control for other reasons too. An alternate flood control method — the Bonnet Carre Spillway in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana — is concerning because of the damage it could cause to Mississippi aquaculture and sport fishing.  As an alternative to operating the Old River Control Structure in different percentages, the Mississippi River Commission examined the effect of operating Bonnet Carre with fully opened gates.  This analysis, however, did not show any appreciable level of flood water reduction in our State, and did not assess the economic harm to Mississippi’s oyster reefs. The last time Bonnet Carre was used for flood control, the Mississippi Gulf Coast lost millions of dollars in oyster beds and related income.

I have called on the Mississippi River Commission to support, on the record, changing federal law to allow more flexibility in Old River Control Structure’s water flow.  It is time to reexamine this decades-old, inflexible formula, and to take into account the real and economic harm caused to Mississippi’s 16th Section land, farmland, and oyster beds.