Are rivers wasted water?

In “Just the Two of Us” the great Bill Withers sings:
Wasted water's all that is
And it don't make no flowers grow.

He’s talking about tears being wasted water but some folks make the same argument about rivers flowing into the sea. Just think of how we might use the Mississippi River’s billions upon billions of gallons in productive ways. A prominent engineer once praised the idea of diverting some of the Mississippi’s flow and conveying it along the Interstate 20 median to thirsty west Texas. “We could make the desert bloom!” he cried, “Instead of wasting it into the Gulf.” Growing flowers instead of growing the Gulf’s hypoxic zone.

But is it really wasted? Large chunks of Louisiana are already sinking into the sea because the Mississippi River’s sediment supply has fallen drastically. Without fresh water to sustain them, those Louisiana and Mississippi marshes would disappear even faster. Without fresh water the vast coastal nurseries for shrimp, oysters, finfish, and other creatures would become too salty and our already stressed Gulf fisheries would collapse. Without the river’s huge flow, multiple cities in Louisiana would lose their only source of water for cities and industries. Those are some steep costs to make west Texas bloom.

Pick your depiction: Dams on rivers provide flood damage reduction, water supply, recreation, navigation, power generation, and desirable home sites; or dams on rivers turn lovely, flowing streams into unsightly mud puddles, prevent fish migration, drown beautiful valleys, destroy ecosystems, and endanger everyone downstream. Unfortunately, seeing only one of these two extremes is typical of the debate. Some people see only benefits of capturing river flows; others see only losses, and arguments between them generate lots of heat but very little useful light.

Here are some proposed truths about rivers and their uses:
·         Harnessing rivers through dams and diversions has both advantages and disadvantages.
·         Advantages may include economic, environmental, aesthetic, and social benefits.
·         Disadvantages may include economic, environmental, aesthetic, and social losses.
·         A calm discussion of the advantages and the disadvantages is needed to decide which outweighs the other for a majority of our people, now and in the future.

·         Shouting slogans at each other prevents a meaningful discussion. 
NASA Terra Satellite Photo of the Mississippi River plume and nearby coastlines.
Courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).


In Fast-Moving World, Slow-Going Barges Ply US Waterways

By  Ted Landphair
A small, but mighty, tugboat pushes a barge loaded with coal up the Ohio River, past downtown Louisville, Kentucky.
Barges haul about 5 percent of the nation’s bulk tonnage
These days, words like “speed,” “flexibility,” and “high-tech” describe the American culture - and a lot of the nation’s business operations.

But not one that’s based on the nation’s inland rivers.

The companies that control the 21,000 barges that towboats and tugboats push and pull along big rivers such as the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee in America’s midsection have none of those attributes.
Barges move ever so slowly - about 9.5 kilometers [6 miles] an hour. There’s not much flexibility in what they do: the rivers are where they are, and strings of 60-meter [195-foot]-long barges get to their destination in their own sweet time. 

This is one of four massive barges that broke away from their towboat on the Ohio River last April. One sank.

Or late, due to floods, low water, or problems that arise in the old and creaky locks along the big rivers.

There’s a lot of waiting and patience involved in the barge business, in other words.

About the only high-tech features involve safety on board and coordination of delivery of coal, chemicals, and grain from their source to river ports for loading.

Otherwise, the barges that carry about 1,700 tons of cargo apiece - 15 times the tonnage of a rail car and 40 times more than a truck can carry - are pretty much the same as they were in the 1920s.
That’s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began dredging America’s large inland waterways to create deep channels to accommodate barge traffic. 

Barges haul about five percent of the nation’s bulk tonnage, and business is relatively good.
Grain production has been booming, although more and more of the nation’s corn stays put on dry land for conversion to ethanol.
And the Ohio, in particular, is still jammed with coal barges feeding coal-fired power plants along the river.

But lucrative traffic in containers arriving from overseas has mostly bypassed the rivers in favor of roads, despite the higher cost of trucks and trains. Why? Because, unlike barge companies and captains, container shippers and their customers are in a hurry.


Restoring the Lower Pearl River Restoration Project

The Lower Pearl River in Pearl River and Hancock Counties Mississippi is the boundary between Mississippi and Louisiana.  The Basin has two river systems; the Pearl River (sometimes referred to as the “East Pearl”) which separates Mississippi and Louisiana and the West Pearl which flows through Louisiana. The two rivers are connected by numerous branches, sloughs and bayous that flow westward from the Pearl River to contribute flows to Louisiana’s West Pearl River.  During low- flow periods, 85-90% of the Pearl River’s flow was diverted into the West Pearl River because of construction, neglect, and the Pearl River’s normal actions.  Without some action, the Lower Pearl River would soon cease to flow in Pearl River and Hancock Counties.
The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Pearl River Basin Development District (PRBDD) worked with Mississippi’s Congressional to get the Lower Pearl River Project funded as a wetlands restoration project through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) in 1994.   The project was designed to achieve a 50/50 low-flow split for an 18-mile reach of the Lower Pearl River from Wilson Slough downstream to Holmes Bayou to provide a net wetlands gain and protect threatened and endangered mussel beds.  The Project’s main elements were:
1.            Construct an earth-filled weir at the inlet of Wilson Slough;
2.            Close outlets at Brier Patch, Moore’s, and Icebox Bayous and an unnamed channel; and,
3.            Excavate a channel on the Pearl River downstream of Wilson Slough.

The COE completed construction of the project in late 1998 and turned the project over to the PRBDD to operate and maintain.  The federal government through the COE provided 100% of the project’s study and permitting costs of $749,150.  The $4,166,893 design and construction costs were split 75/25 with the federal share being $3,125,170 and the sponsor’s share being $1,041,723.

However the Wilson Slough weir was seriously damaged by high water almost immediately and the COE had to assume responsibility for the project again in early 1999.  The weir was seriously damaged again in 2002.  The federal government assumed 100% of the $4,730,866 repair costs.

Despite the repairs, the project has never been able to meet the design goal of 50/50 low-flow allocation.  As of late 2010 the COE reported that the project had only been able to achieve an 85%/15% low-flow allocation between the Pearl and the West Pearl Rivers.  As the project’s local sponsor, the PRBDD has attempted to get the COE to re-evaluate and re-design the project to meet its design goals.

In 2015, the PRBDD applied to the COE for $100,000 of Continuing Authorities Program section 1135 funds (Project Modification for Environmental Benefit) to investigate the project and determine what modifications would be necessary to achieve the original 50/50 low flow allocation.  The PRBDD and the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors are working together with Mississippi’s Congressional Delegation to ensure that the COE funds this important project in 2017.  The PRBDD retained the Pickering Firm to provide technical services for this important regional project to ensure that the Lower Pearl River’s minimum flows continue supporting important ecological, environmental and recreational needs.