A drier-than-usual year up north has Baton Rouge-area farmers and communities along the Mississippi River breathing a sigh of relief as the threat of flooding due to high water levels may not be a significant headache this year.
The river in Baton Rouge appears to have crested last week at about 38 feet, just over what’s considered a moderate flood stage. The National Weather Service projects waters will gradually continue to fall and could even reach minor flood stages by early next week, even with this week's rains.
The overall forecast for this spring follows several recent years of high water, including in 2019 when the river ran high for more than 200 consecutive days, shattering all previous records and extending the high-water season through the summer.
But with the possibility of a calmer year thanks to recent dry months in waterways feeding into the Mississippi River, farmers like Ricky Rivet will have some respite from having to fend off encroaching water like he did two years ago.
“When the river is low that’s good for me,” he said. “I don’t have to make preparations.”
For Rivet, the potentially lower river levels means he won’t have to move more than 100 head of livestock from his Morganza farm, a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process, as well as the other work he usually does in the spring to guard against flooding.
Farmers in Pointe Coupee Parish had been nervously bracing for officials to potentially open the Morganza spillway in 2019, which would have relieved a swollen Mississippi River and led to flooding in nearby agricultural fields.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers eventually decided not to open the spillway, which would have been only the third time in history the relief valve would have been pulled and dumped water into the Atchafalaya Basin.
Though the likelihood of needing to open that and other lower Mississippi River spillways is low, the Corps is still keeping an eye on water levels and, more importantly, rainfall in the Ohio and Missouri river valleys, which have been low this year.
That’s because rainfall in those areas feeds into the Mississippi River, but forecasts only take into account about two days of rain. A deluge of wet weather up north could either increase river levels in Louisiana or prolong how long they stay up.
“Rain in the valley could change anything,” said Ricky Boyett, a spokesman for the Corps' New Orleans Division. “We still don’t know.”
Predictions are sometimes don’t go according to plan.
A decade ago, the lower Mississippi River saw a similar rise and fall in the spring, but multiple days of heavy rains in the Missouri and Ohio river valleys change the forecasted trajectory in a hurry.
The rush of extra water caused the Mississippi River to rise steeply that May and prompted officials to take the rare step of opening the Morganza floodway, as well as spillway bays south of Baton Rouge. The structures draw water out of the river to reduce the chances of more serious river flooding in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Though high waters arrived early this year, Boyett said he anticipates this year will be similar to typical years when the river runs high in the spring and then gradually fall if the weather stays dry upstream.