The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is warning stakeholders along the Morganza Spillway that it could be forced to open some of the structure's gates early next month because, based on current forecasts, the Mississippi River would overtop the spillway structure on June 5 and render it unsafe.
Just a week ago, Corps officials said those with interests along the spillway should keep going to church and praying, but that they then had "no intention" of opening the spillway.
That has changed.
The Mississippi has been above flood stage for four months and heavy rains have fallen recently in the Midwest. Now, "there's a likelihood that we would have to open Morganza, but it depends on the rain," Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said Wednesday night. Corps officials plan to meet Thursday to discuss updated forecasts. Based on current readings, the Corps would likely open the spillway June 2, Boyett said.
If the spillway opens, it would be only the third time since it was completed in 1954. The spillway was previously opened for 56 days in 1973 and 55 days in 2011.
The rarely used Morganza Spillway may be opened soon as the Mississippi River continues to swell.
Boyett said that current river forecasts project the river overtopping the structure in two weeks, and that water at that height would render the spillway unusable. The Corps would prefer to open it a few days earlier to allow a controlled release. That would entail filling the basin with a foot of water per day for two or three days to give wildlife a chance to escape.
The Morganza works differently than the Bonnet Carré spillway above New Orleans, which had to be opened on two separate occasions this year for the first time in history. The Bonnet Carré can more easily be thrown open, Boyett explained. The Corps prefers to tread more lightly with Morganza, opening it up one bay door at a time.
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The state heard forecasts Wednesday that the Atchafalaya should remain high, and Louisiana officials expect to learn more on Thursday, said Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
The Corps planned an emergency operations meeting for Thursday morning to discuss the most recent forecast and the potential impact on Morganza. Steele emphasized that the call on whether to open the spillway will be up to the Corps.
Pointe Coupee Sheriff Bud Torres said Corps officials have been in touch with parish leaders recently, telling them to expect updates early next week on whether the spillway will be opened.
He said he’s hopeful the spillway wouldn't be opened because if would devastate cropland and camps in the spillway, which runs from north of Morganza to the Gulf of Mexico between levees west of Livonia and east of Krotz Springs.
“We understand why, but it still hurts when it happens,” he said. “We’ve been fighting the river for 300 years and she does what she wants. It’s just the price you pay.”
Boyett said the Corps has been in touch with people who have an interest in the spillway so they can prepare in cause the Morganza Spillway must open. The Corps didn't intend to spread the news more widely until it has a chance to review additional forecasts and confirm the need to open the spillway.
The Mississippi River has set flood records this year. Rainy conditions across the country have dumped gallons upon gallons of water into tributaries that feed into the Mississippi, which has been in flood stage at Baton Rouge since early January. The persistent high water has broken the record set in 1927 for most days in flood stage at the capital city. Though hemmed in by the levees, the river is forecast to remain in flood stage well into summer.
The Midwest has been hit with a number of storms in recent weeks, including major rains this past weekend.
The last time the Mississippi River was this high for this long, it prompted the federal government to build the modern levee system.
Advocate staff writer Lea Skene contributed to this report.