IntroductionThe Mississippi River and Yazoo Backwater flood of 2019 will go down in the record books as one of the longest-lasting inundations in this part of the world. The Mississippi River rose above flood stage of 43 ft on the Vicksburg gauge in early January and stayed high June In the meantime, the central part of the state received record rainfall in January and February, filling creeks and streams in the Yazoo Backwater.
|Plot of water level measured at the Vicksburg Gage, located near the Interstate 20 bridge. Major flood is defined as 50.0 ft on the gage. Plot from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.|
|Plot of Mississippi River stage over the first five months of 2019. Spike in mid-May is a bad data point.|
Brief backgroundLet me digress with a short explanation of the hydrology of the region and why you see so much water. Levees (or dikes) line the Mississippi River all the way from central Missouri to the mouth of the river in the Gulf of Mexico, well south of New Orleans. The purpose of the levees is to prevent the river from flooding farmland and towns in the midwest during high river stages. The Yazoo River is a tributary of the Mississippi, meaning it flows into the larger river. The Yazoo drains west central Mississippi, much of it comprising the broad flat alluvial plain known as the Mississippi Delta (the same Delta famed for Blues music).
But during high water, several complicated issues arise:
- Problem no. 1: If the Mississippi River is in flood, the water will back up the Yazoo and inundate farmland and towns. Therefore, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) built levees along the Yazoo. The USACE installed flood control gates into the levee at a place called Steele Bayou, near the town of Redwood. The USACE closes the gates to prevent those flood waters from rolling over the farms of the southern Delta.
- Problem no. 2: If there has been heavy local rain in west central Mississippi, the streams and bayous of the Delta rise. But if the Mississippi is simultaneously in flood, the Steele Bayou gates are closed. Therefore, there is no place for the local runoff to drain out, and the water collects and rises behind (or north of) the gates. February to June of 2019 was one of these periods when both the Mississippi River was in flood and there had been torrential rain in the state of Mississippi – for weeks. There was no place for the water in the Yazoo Backwater to go, and the area experienced the longest-lasting inundation since the 1973 flood.
- To add complexity to this problem: in 1941, Congress authorized the USACE to install pumps near Steele Bayou to pump Yazoo backwater water up and over the levee into the Yazoo River. However, the construction was not funded. These pumps would be some of the largest on earth and today would cost over $300 million. The EPA cancelled this project in 2008. Congress, farmers, and environmentalists have been fighting over the infamous pumps since the 1940s. You see where this is going….
For some more information about how all this water reaches the Gulf of Mexico, see my 2011 article about the Old River Control.
|Yazoo Canal from North Washington Street|
|Big River Shipbuilders on Port Terminal Circle, Port of Vicksburg, March 21, 2019 (Fuji Acros film, Vito BL camera)|
|Ford Road, Vicksburg, March 8, 2019 (Hasselblad 501CM, 80mm f/2.8 CB Planar lens)|
|Young Alley, Vicksburg (80mm Planar lens)|
|Vicksburg Southern Railroad (VSOR) tracks extending north to International Paper mill north of Redwood (250mm Sonnar lens)|
|Raised mobile home off Falk Steel Road, photograph taken from VSOR tracks, March 8, 2019 (50mm Distagon lens)|
|Kings Crossing Road west of N. Washington Street, March 15, 2019 (80mm Planar lens)|
|Farm road off N. Washington Street, March 14, 2019 (250mm Sonnar lens)|
The color photographs are from expired Kodak Ektar 25 film, exposed with a tripod-mounted Hasselblad 501CM camera with 50mm, 80mm, and 250mm Zeiss lenses. The colors are not quite right, but by using the gray dropper tool, the SilverFast scanner software recovered most colors.
High- and low-water recordsFrom weather.gov:
Flood Categories (in feet)
|Major Flood Stage:||50|
|Moderate Flood Stage:||46|
(1) 57.10 ft on 05/19/2011
(2) 56.20 ft on 05/04/1927
(3) 53.20 ft on 02/21/1937
(4) 52.80 ft on 06/06/1929
(5) 52.50 ft on 04/28/1922
(6) 51.60 ft on 05/13/1973
(7) 51.50 ft on 02/15/1916
(8) 51.00 ft on 04/20/2008
(9) 50.23 ft on 01/15/2016
(10) 50.20 ft on 04/16/1897
Show More Historic Crests
(P): Preliminary values subject to further review.
(1) 49.90 ft on 03/16/2018
(2) 48.50 ft on 05/25/2017
(3) 36.44 ft on 05/22/2016
(4) 43.32 ft on 03/18/2016
(5) 50.23 ft on 01/15/2016
(6) 37.32 ft on 12/14/2015
(7) 45.96 ft on 07/26/2015
(8) 37.84 ft on 06/08/2015
(9) 42.98 ft on 04/01/2015
(10) 38.40 ft on 04/20/2014
Show More Recent Crests
Low Water Records
(1) -7.00 ft on 02/03/1940
(2) -6.80 ft on 11/01/1939
(3) -5.80 ft on 01/06/1964