General Ramblings: Drowning Dreams

June 1, 2011       Paul Clolery      

Lives are being ruined by the floods along the Mississippi River. It didn’t have to be this way.

The saying goes that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. That’s the situation along the Mississippi. Every few years there are flood conditions that uproot lives and render cities and towns incapacitated and other than some protective levees, we just wait for the water.

The winter’s heavy snows and the spring’s drenching rains have left the river swollen past its banks. It’s so swollen that the government has decided we no longer need Butte La Rose, a small Louisiana town, and will flood it to save larger cities along the river.

It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before. Nature always wins. It’s a fact. It’s the planet’s inhabitants that have to find a way to manage the fallout.

Tens of billions of dollars are being lost and spent — from people’s life savings destroyed when their homes are gone to insurance companies paying off to reduced commerce along the river to American donors digging deep to help those impacted.

The power of the rushing water is churning up the river bottom, where a century of poor environmental attention had settled. That toxic sediment will be released onto farmland along the river and rendering that land unusable for a lifetime.

It didn’t have to be this way. In 1973, American drivers were on long lines, happy to pay exorbitant prices for a gallon of gasoline if they could find an open station. The government and private industry got together and by 1977 built The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), which includes an 800-mile pipeline, 11 pump stations, hundreds of miles of feeder pipelines, and a terminal. It runs from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska.

The pipeline pumps 2.1 million barrels of crude each day. One barrel equals 42 gallons. So this one pipeline moves 88.2 million gallons of fluid each day.

Imagine a series of similar pipelines along the Mississippi River where water is plentiful and some of the surrounding states are reporting crippling drought.

The billions being spent on response could have been utilized for preparation. While TAPS runs for 800 miles, it is just 770 miles from Memphis,Tenn. on the Mississippi west to Amarillo, Texas. A series of pipelines could be constructed along railroad and highway right of ways to move water away from catastrophe to where it is needed.

The water could be pumped west to purification facilities in Texas and Oklahoma for distribution to drought areas where it is needed to irrigate the fields that feed us.

TAPS took three years to build because of Alaska’s challenging weather. It could be done faster along the Mississippi. There will be the usual objections to such a project. Water is a commodity out west. Grazing and water rights are big business in areas where water is short. There is also the issue of fish migration patterns that can’t be disrupted.

But this is a critical national issue and accommodations must be made. Eight states along the river, roughly 16 percent of the country, are put in jeopardy each time the river floods. One year it’s Iowa, the next it’s Tennessee.

This is not some engineering marvel. The technology to keep solids out of the pipeline already exists. You get some plumbers and construction workers to start building.

Just like foundations are rebuilding Detroit with some success, foundations in states along the river and national environmental organizations should start raising the money to start examining this issue and getting it done.

There are many questions that need answering when it comes to a project this large. Let’s start with this one: Should we build a pipeline or a really large homeless shelter because the river has drowned another city? NPT

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