The impact of the Morganza Spillway opening

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KLFY’s Trevor Sonnier breaks down the impact on the opening of the Morganza Spillway.

The land on both sides of the Morganza Control Structure is above normal river water levels, and usually dry. In order for water to reach the spillway, the Mississippi must first rise well above its flood stage, overtopping its banks. The Corps of Engineers considers opening the Morganza Spillway when the flow of the Mississippi at Red River Landing, Louisiana is greater than 1,500,000 cubic feet per second and rising.

Water from the Mississippi is normally diverted into the Atchafalaya Basin at only one place, the Old River Control Structure (ORCS), in use since 1963, where floodgates are routinely used to redirect the Mississippi’s flow into the Atchafalaya River such that the volume of the two rivers is split 70%/30%, respectively, as measured at the latitude of Red River Landing. During the 1973 Mississippi flood, the ORCS was being damaged due to high flow rates, leading to the opening of the Morganza Spillway to help relieve this pressure. Subsequently, the nearby Old River Control Auxiliary Structure (ORCAS) was constructed, adding additional floodgates for use during major floods.

The Morganza Spillway, about 30 miles downriver from ORCS and ORCAS, is designed for emergency use to divert additional water from the Mississippi River into the Morganza floodway, which merges downstream with the Atchafalaya floodway before entering the Gulf. Diversion of water from the Mississippi’s main channel has the effect of lowering water level in the Mississippi downstream of the spillway, helping to relieve stress on levees and other flood control structures both upstream and down. Besides controlling flooding in a given event, the system is also designed to prevent the Mississippi River from permanently altering course down the Atchafalaya River, bypassing Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Water that passes the Morganza Spillway first enters the Morganza Floodway, which extends from the spillway at the Mississippi River south to the East Atchafalaya River levee. The floodway, 20 miles long and 5 miles wide, includes a stilling basin, an approach channel, an outlet channel, and two guide levees. From there, diverted water enters the Atchafalaya River Basin Floodway near Krotz Springs, Louisiana, and continues to the Gulf of Mexico.

In an extreme flood event, a major release of water from the Morganza Spillway into the Morganza Floodway and Atchafalaya Basin inundates not only the floodways themselves (between their levees), but extensive additional areas of southern Louisiana throughout the Atchafalaya Basin. In such an event, the water level of the Mississippi, high enough to overtop the Spillway, would already be flooding some areas in the Basin downstream of the spillway, due to increased flow through the ORCS and the ORCAS, as well as possible overtopping of levees near the spillway.[14] This flooding, plus any additional water from a Morganza Spillway release, together determine the total extent of flooding throughout the Atchafalaya Basin during a major Mississippi River flood.

At risk in the Atchafalaya Basin are St. Martin Parish, St. Landry Parish and St. Mary Parish.  People in that area know it is a natural floodplain, and the Corps of Engineers issues written notices annually to all interests reminding them of the possibility that it might open the spillway and flood the area. Any decision to open the spillway must be carefully planned to give ample warning and protect life and property. Part of that planning process includes the Corps’ preparation of maps known as “inundation scenarios” so that interested parties can discuss how much water, if any, should be allowed through the spillway

During both moderate and severe floods of the Mississippi, the Bonnet Carré Spillway can also be opened to help protect New Orleans, many parts of which are below sea level. The Bonnet Carré Spillway, built after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, is located well downstream of Morganza, where the Mississippi River approaches Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. The Corps uses Bonnet Carré to divert floodwaters into the lake in order to protect the levees near New Orleans.

Integrity of the Morganza Spillway, the Old River Control Structure, and nearby levees is essential to prevent the Mississippi from diverting its main channel into the Atchafalaya Basin

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