Atchafalaya Basin Waits For Mississippi Floodwaters

While floodwater from the Morganza Spillway has inundated nearby forests and swamps, it's yet to reach communities in the Atchafalaya Basin. A conservation group is buying farmland and converting it back to its natural state to provide a place for extra water to go, and reduce flooding in populated areas.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

To Louisiana now, where residents in small towns below the Morganza spillway are still waiting for the big flood to arrive. While water from the Mississippi has inundated nearby forests and swamps, it has yet to reach the few communities in the Atchafalaya Basin. NPR's Jeff Brady has the story.

JEFF BRADY: When the small towns are flooded, it'll be to save bigger towns to the east. Historian and levee board member John Berry says two spillways are draining water off the Mississippi River.

JOHN BERRY: If we didn't have Bonnet Carre and Morganza, then the city, both Baton Rouge and New Orleans, would be underwater, period.

BRADY: It's hard to comprehend how much water is traveling down the Mississippi right now. This year's floods rival the region's historic ones in 1973 and the really big one over 80 years ago.

BERRY: At its widest in 1927, the river was at least 100 miles across.

BRADY: To get a sense of how much the river wants to spread out now, you need to see it from the air. We tagged along with a few people from the Nature Conservancy as they rode in a small plane over the Morganza spillway. Below, the brown Mississippi water turns white as it churns through the open bays on the spillway.

Speaking through the airplane's intercom, Bryan Piazza with the Nature Conservancy says water is being diverted into the Atchafalaya River Basin.

BRYAN PIAZZA: You can see everything's flooded. All the trees are flooded right here probably 25 feet deep.

BRADY: Those trees extend as far as you can see - about a million acres of forest - and right now it's mostly flooded.

PIAZZA: This is something like you see in the Amazon River, where the water comes right up to the bottom of the canopy of the tree.

BRADY: Along the way, we see deer escaping the water by climbing up a levee. There are threatened Louisiana black bears down there too. Keith Ouchley, a state director for the Nature Conservancy...

KEITH OUCHLEY: There have actually been studies in Arkansas and other places that show that the bears go up to the canopy of the trees, and they can live for up to three weeks in the tops of those trees eating insects and vegetation. They don't need to come down.

BRADY: Ouchley says all those trees help slow down the water. That's one reason towns in the Atchafalaya Basin that were predicted to flood by now have been spared so far. And Ouchley says the trees also rid the water of nutrients that can cause dead zones.

OUCHLEY: These nutrients could be taken up by all of these trees that stretch to the horizon. They thrive on that nitrogen and that phosphorous. And they take it out of the water, so it actually cleans the water before it enters the Gulf of Mexico.

BRADY: Right now, though, the most important function of all that water flowing into the Atchafalaya Basin is that it's moving away from population centers, where it could do billions of dollars in damage. Spillways like this are working when needed but the Nature Conservancy and many others here say the region needs more areas for water to go during floods.

Clint Wilson agrees. He studies the Mississippi River from his post at Louisiana State University's College of Engineering.

CLINT WILSON: We might say, yeah, boy, it would be wonderful to be able to store, you know, thousands of acres of Mississippi River water at point X to reduce the flooding or reduce the chance of flooding in, you know, Memphis, Tennessee or Baton Rouge, Louisiana, wherever, but then you have to start trading that off with what's the cost of doing that.

BRADY: That can involve tricky questions like tearing down levees that make people feel safe or even moving people out of places they consider home. These are tough issues to work out but ones that the region likely will have to face, especially if a changing climate leads to even more severe floods in the future.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

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