06/17/2011 07:24 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2011

Rollin' on the River

Most of the Mississippi River reaches the Gulf of Mexico here in New Orleans -- although in flood season, particularly during big floods like this year's, a large portion of the river finds the sea to the west, through the Atchafalaya Basin. Thus far, the floods of 2011 (underscore that we have had more than one) haven't produced the devastation of previous high-water years, or of this year's tornadoes. But public patience with the reality of human-managed rivers, and political intolerance of the reality that we are dependent on natural systems, is reaching an all-time peak.

The first pulse of flooding came down the main stem of the Mississippi and Ohio, almost wiped out Cairo and then Memphis, cresting on May 11 at 47.8 feet -- high enough to flood its sister city in Arkansas, West Memphis, and outlying neighborhoods, but not quite catastrophic. But saving cities required flooding -- well, floodways, former floodplains now leveed off in normal years with the intention of becoming dumping grounds for excessive storm water in springs like 2011. In Missouri, 136,000 acres of former flood plain were opened up to preserve urban areas from disaster, a decision that's now being questioned by Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill.

Now the second flood pulse is hitting, this one coming down the "big muddy" Missouri from Montana and the Dakotas. Twice as much water as normal is being released from federal dams on the Upper Missouri, threatening cities like Hamburg, Missouri.

You can just hear the politicians gnashing their teeth.

You know there's just a historic amount of water coming down the Missouri River out of the system, and it raises the questions, begs the questions, what happened?" said Senator Mike Johanns (R-Neb). "How did we all the sudden end up with a situation where we have to drive twice as much water down the system for a whole summer?"

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback lamented, "I am frustrated .... It's time we talk about the impact of flooding on the Missouri River system. ... It's about human life."

Congressman Sam Graves of Missouri was very pointed: "We are not managing the river, the river is managing us."


The fact is that spring snowmelt into the Missouri basin is high -- but not amazingly high. Rocky Mountain snowpack is 140 percent of normal. But normal snowpack uses up all the room the Army Corps has left in the diked, dammed, and channelized Missouri. That means that 40 percent more snowmelt flowing into the watershed results in twice as much water flowing over the dams -- which produces dramatically higher flood crests. Each step in the process is magnified by the fact that we have tried to force a natural system (the river) to operate like a piece of manmade plumbing. That's how we ended up with twice as much water coming down the system -- even if Senator Johanns acts like this is somehow shocking.

Yes, Congressman Graves, the river is managing us -- because we took away the space and resilience that gave the Missouri its capacity to manage itself.

And, yes, this will cost human lives.

Meanwhile, most of the same politicians, people like Graves and Brownback, who are acting like deer in the headlights confronted with a bit of extreme weather are the same coal and oil toadies who insist that trying to avoid disruptive climate and extreme weather is the wimpy concern of soft liberals, and that a real country just deals with stuff like this. Just as Texas Governor Rick Perry went from calling for secession from the Union to begging for federal disaster relief when wildfires scorched his state, rightwing politicians in the Mississippi Valley are going from denouncing socialist big government to asking why we can't just build enough levees to stop the flooding once and for all.

The answer, my friends, is quite simple. We can't afford to do away with nature, however hard you have been trying. It's just too pricey.