Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/August 1907/Recent Legislation on the Mississippi River

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THE new River and Harbor Bill is of particular interest in the portion pertaining to the Mississippi River. For over twenty years levee construction and maintenance has been the dominant feature of the river's regulation. During nearly half that time a concerted effort has been made to maintain a navigable channel when the river is at a low stage. There are indications that the catchword for the years to come will have reference to a 14-foot waterway from the lakes to the gulf. In the original act[1] three lines of procedure, one a continuation of former projects, the other two in some wise new projects, were advocated. Briefly, these are as follows:

1. An appropriation for the general improvement of the river, for the extension of the levee system and for the improvement of navigation. This includes the maintenance of a navigable channel of at least 200 feet in width and 9 feet in depth from Cairo to the Gulf.

2. An appropriation for the improvement of the river from the mouth of the Ohio River to the mouth of the Missouri River. This appropriation is a reduction of the sum appropriated in the last River and Harbor Bill.

3. The appointment of a board to report upon the practicability and desirability of constructing a navigable channel 1-i feet deep and of suitable width from St. Louis to the Gulf, either by improvement of the river or by a canal or canals for a part of the route.

The first of these continues the work under the control of the Mississippi River Commission, a board created in 1879. This board has defined the law which created them in the following general terms.[2]

1. Continuation of surveys; preparation and publication of maps, maintenance of gauges; the recording, tabulating and publication of gauge readings the taking and recording of discharge measurements at high and low stages of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and other observations.
2. The building, extension and repair of levees.
3. The building, maintenance and operation of dredge boats.
4. The repair and extension of existing works for the improvement of the channel, the preservation of harbors, the prevention of cut-offs, and the security of levees.
5. The maintenance of a low-water channel between the Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya Rivers.

Although the history of the confinement of this river covers a period of nearly 200 years, no concerted plan for the regulation of the river in its extent through the alluvial basin had been attempted. The commission took up its work at a peculiarly fortunate time. The organization was about completed when, in 1882, a flood of unprecedented size overflowed the whole alluvial basin and destroyed most of the levees then existing. The slate was clean. No previous work conceived along narrow lines blocked the progress of any project which the commission might formulate. The land owners and riparian proprietors were discouraged. Their work in levees was destroyed and burdensome taxes for levee construction had profited them little. The allotments of money appropriated by the government revived their spirits and renewed efforts were instituted. Levee construction has gone on continuously from that time to the present, until to-day a little less than 75 per cent, of the banks of the river south of Cape Girardeau, Mo. is leveed. The recommendations of the commission show that the early completion of the system of levees is in their opinion a desideratum. The levees have been constantly increased in height. This was expected. The confinement of waters within narrower and narrower limits as the levees increased in length would be evidenced in the vertical expansion of the waters. There is no criterion for the height of the embankments except the highest known stage of the river. It is planned to exceed this stage by from 2 to 4 feet. The difficulties of this arrangement may be illustrated by the floods of 1897 and 1903. A provisional grade 2 feet above the 1897 flood was adopted; in 1903 the flood was in some places 2.5 feet above the 1897 stage and the waters would have over-topped the levees had they not been reenforced by sand bags. After the 1903 flood a new provisional grade was adopted which in some instances is 5 feet above the provisional grade for the years before. There always remains the possibility, and it is not a remote one, that the highest-known flood may be exceeded in stage.

That the constructions and vigilance of the men working under this commission have been effective, the showing of the Yazoo Basin proves. This basin, having an area of about 6,300 square miles, equivalent to the combined areas of Connecticut and Rhode Island, has in twenty years experienced an increase of over 100 per cent, in its population. In 1900, 195,346 people were living in this area. Railroads have been built, forests have been removed, lands cultivated, industries of many kinds developed and holdings of scarcely a nominal price have become farms of considerable value.

That protection has not always been accorded the dwellers of this and other basins is also evident when the records of flood seasons are reviewed. In the Yazoo Basin during the high water of 1903, the last high water season, one fourth of the basin was under water; one half of the city of Greenville inundated; 60,000 people, or one third of the inhabitants of the basin driven from their homes and traffic was suspended on the railroads, on the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad for twenty days and on the Riverside Division for forty days. There was no loss of life or of live stock and most of the movable farm implements and machinery were saved. For this protection from loss a great share of the credit should be given to the Weather Bureau, which sent out warnings to the inhabitants of the basin a few days before the river reached its highest stage.

Another line of work in charge of the commission is the maintenance of a navigable highway from Cairo to the Gulf. The specifications demand a channel of at least 200 feet in width and 9 feet in depth. To meet this demand, a number of dredges have been constructed, and as fast as the river falls in stage and approaches a 9-foot depth dredging operations are inaugurated. It has been proved that, unless the river falls to an abnormally low stage, it is altogether within the power of the dredging parties to maintain the required size of channel. Notwithstanding this surety and this success, the traffic of the river has declined in volume during the last thirty years. This decline may be due to a number of causes. The greater length of the waterway over the railway between the same ports resulting from the meandering oi the river, and the greater speed attainable in rail traffic make the time by rail to the time by water from St. Louis to New Orleans as 1 to 10. A second disadvantage of the water route lies in its uncertainty. During high water stages navigation is difficult. At times the boats are ordered to go at slow speed lest the wash increase the caving of the levees. There is also an uncertainty concerning the location of the low-water channel. Even with the success of the dredging operations the channels are often difficult and hard to run. A third cause which is emphasized by the loss of time and the uncertainty of the passage is the constantly decreasing difference between the tariffs by rail and by water. A fourth cause lies in the active part which railroad companies have taken in the competition.

A liberal appropriation is made for the continuance of the work of the parties under the direction of the River Commission. While different judgments concerning the efficiency of their work prevail, the opinion is a general one that this work ought to be prosecuted until a more obvious means of benefiting the people of the alluvial basin and at the same time serving the needs of the inhabitants of the valley can be devised.

The second point in the River and Harbor Bill was an appropriation of $250,000 for the stretch of river between the mouth of the Missouri and the mouth of the Ohio. The Senate amendment to this portion of the bill was a complete renovation with an appropriation of $650,000. It was later understood, however, that the Senate conferees had yielded to the argument of the House conferees and would allow the amendment to be stricken from the bill. During the four seasons just past this stretch of river has had an appropriation of $650,000 annually. In 1897, the appropriation was $673,000; in 1903, $758,000. The debate upon this reduction was long and brought out some interesting statements. The reasons for this reduction may be summed up as follows:

1. There has been a continual falling off in the traffic along this stretch of river. While the projected 8-foot channel has to a large degree been maintained, at no time has the improvement of this portion of the river been reflected in the traffic. Altogether there has been spent on this portion $12,000,000, and the traffic last year was only about 440,000 tons. This tonnage of traffic does not include ferriage, which is little affected by river improvements.

This loss of traffic was explained by the citation of conditions which are similar in the Kansas-St. Louis stretch of the Missouri River. When the boats began to get the business between these two cities, the railroads paralleling the river organized a determined opposition. The roads acted concertedly and reduced the tariff rates along this stretch of river to one third the former scheduled rates. They were reported to have gone even further. They went out and under-bid the boats. Gradually the stock in the boat lines passed from the hands of the promoters, and competition ceased. The old schedule of railroad rates was then resumed. It is also suspected that the rebate system until recently in vogue between large shippers of freight and the railroad companies acted against the river traffic. Along the Cairo-St. Louis stretch of the river, the building of boats ceased in 1893, and a constant reduction of the fleet has gone on since that date.

From To Memphis To New Orleans To St. Louis
Clarkesdale 76.7 $1.25 $0.56 378.9 $2.25 $0.72 390.1 $1.21
Friars Point* 70.1 1.00 .45 385.5 1.00 .45 383.5 .90
Cleveland 113.6 2.00 .62 342.0 —— —— —— ——
Rosedale* 114.0 1.25 .45 341.6 —— —— —— ——
  • On Mississippi River.

A, distance in miles; B, cotton per bale; C, first-class merchandise per 100 pounds.

It is claimed, however, in rebuttal that it is immaterial whether the tonnage is actually floated on the river or not. The means of cheap transportation is gained if the riverway is open to traffic. Two illustrations of this follow. It is about the same distance from St. Louis to three Mississippi towns, Greenville on the Mississippi Elver, Greenwood on the Yazoo River and Winona, inland. The freight rates by rail to these towns are, to Greenville, $0.90 per one hundred pounds, to Greenwood, $0.96, and to Winona, $1.14. In other words, the improvement of the river from St. Louis to Greenville and to Greenwood has accomplished the ends desired, even though the transportation has to a large extent been by rail. A still clearer case is made out in the preceding table.[3]

2. The engineers have not agreed concerning the works along this stretch of river. They have been at "loggerheads." Furthermore they could not spend the annual appropriation of $650,000. At the end of the fiscal year in 1905 it was reported that there was a balance on hand of $915,000.

3. The proposition of a deep waterway (14 feet) from Chicago to New Orleans via this stretch of river affected the appropriation. If this 14-foot waterway is attempted it seems to be the feeling that the depth in some portions, if not all, of this stretch of river between St. Louis and Cairo would have to be obtained by a lateral canal. It was not prudent to allot money for permanent improvements as long as a change of policy was imminent. It is claimed that the reduction of the appropriation is not hostile to this portion of the river nor to the proposed 14-foot waterway. It is a temporary halting of work in order to await the development of other projects and to give the engineers time to study the problems further in the hope of a closer approach to unity of recommendation.

The third section of the River and Harbor Bill pertaining to the Mississippi River had reference to very extensive improvements of the river and had for its main clause the consideration of a 14-foot waterway from St. Louis to the Gulf. The realization of such a waterway with the completion of the project, already instituted, of a 14foot waterway from Chicago to St. Louis will give a deep waterway from the sea to the Great Lakes. There is little opposition to such an undertaking. It is generally admitted that a highway of this nature would prove of great value to the country as a whole. The immediate need of this waterway arises from the fact that the products of the valley have outstripped the carrying capacity of the railroads. It has been admitted by railroad men that there is no promise of greater transportation facilities, and that the construction of new lines, of new cars and engines, can not keep pace with the increasing output of mills, plains, forests and mines. The only relief to this congestion seems to lie in the Mississippi River. The regulation of this stream up to the present day has not been of such a nature as to greatly benefit the producers and give them a highway for their output.

While it is generally conceded that all this is true, the proposition for the regulation of the river has been accompanied by plans of so visionary a nature that many people have withdrawn for a season their support or have cast their lines in opposition. This section of the River and Harbor Bill carried with it no feature to which objection should be taken. It plans for a thorough inspection of the problem of a deep waterway by a competent committee. This committee is directed to report to congress on the feasibility of such a waterway. Its duty is one of investigation, not of operation. We may expect a careful consideration of all the problems pertaining to a deep waterway and such recommendations as they see fit to make. There is in the specifications drawn up for this committee a clause which requires them to report upon the possibility of using locks and dams similar to those in use on the Ohio; in other words, to ascertain whether the canalization project is feasible for the Mississippi River. It is this project of canalization which has aroused opposition. Some of the proposers of this plan of improvement, and they were probably the instigators of this section of the bill, have advocated canalization as the only means of obtaining the requisite depth of channel. It is but just to assume that the business men of the valley, and especially the St. Louis contingent, have a definite and well-considered plan for gaining a deeper waterway. At the same time it is unfortunate that their desires should have been introduced to the general public as an undertaking of stupendous magnitude and a work which the public would be forced to promote. An extravagant speech in congress which pictured the bounds of a canalization plant as "two granite walls, 200 feet high and 2,000 miles long" in comparison with which the Chinese wall "7 feet high and only about 450 miles long" is diminutive, was probably no more excessive than the terms by which the speaker may have been informed of the project.

The canalization of a river is not a new method of benefiting the navigable quality of a river. Many streams in Europe, as the Elbe, Seine and the Main, and some streams in this country, portions of the Ohio, for example, have been regulated successfully by this method. The canalization of a stream turns the river into a series of steps; passage from one step to the next higher or lower is made through a lock, and the height of water is sustained by a dam across the main channel of the river. The stream-flow is thus blocked and navigation is as easy up-stream as down. The best arrangement of dam and lock is possible when an island divides the stream into a main channel and a chute. If the dam or weir is located in the main channel and the lock in the secondary channel, high-water stages are not as likely to impair the locks. The weir, however, must be made movable so as not to oppose the flood force. This, in brief, is the process of canalization. While the projectors of this plan for the Mississippi River have not definitely stated what type of canalization plant they advocate, there are certain features which above others must enter into the consideration of every project of a serious nature. A few of the most salient of the characteristics I desire to mention, and, without taking issue with the promoters of canalization, to point out, here and there, the probable effects of these on canalization works.

The discharge of the river is enormous. The potent factors in river discharges are the precipitation of rain over its basin and the porosity of the soil of the basin. The Mississippi River system drains about one third of the United States. The annual discharge of the river is greater than the combined annual discharges of the Po, Danube and the Rhone. This body of water fluctuates in its flow from a flood stage in the spring these stages is commonly 50 feet. Any works in the river must be strong enough to withstand the enormous body of water of the flood stage. The locks in the chutes or side channels within the highwater levees will be inundated. The movement of the water must cause scour; and weirs, locks and abutments leading thereto would be threatened with imminent destruction.

The ratio of sediment carried by the river to the stream discharge is large. Much of this sediment is rolled along the bed of the river in waves transverse to the direction of stream flow. It is estimated that the total amount of sediment yielded to the Gulf yearly is a little over 400,000,000 tons. Enormous quantities of sediment find a temporary lodging place during the low-water season along the bed of the river. It is because of this sediment that the present dredging project is extant. It is admitted by the enthusiasts for canalization that the sediment would be injurious to a canal plant. They offer as a remedy the removal of the sediment by catchment basins before the navigable portions of the river are reached, or the removal of the sediment from the tributaries by some similar process, or the retention of the 400,000,000 tons of sediment "in the townships where it belongs." Any one of the remedies mentioned means a task as great if not greater than the original project. Catchment basins are easily constructed in small streams, but to suggest such a thing for large streams with a variable flow, the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers for example, is to gamble with success. The retention of the sediment "in the townships where it belongs" is visionary. Some of the sediment comes from the caving banks of the river itself. This could not be eliminated. Furthermore, if the stream is deprived of much of its sediment, the power which ordinarily is expended in carrying its load can then be spent in further scour of its banks. Thus, to some degree, the deprivation of sediment will work to the harm of the protective levees.

A flood often falls rapidly in stage. During a sudden drop, the waters dump quantities of detritus along the bed. If we deny that during flood stages the sediment can be removed from the tributary streams, we must have fear for the effect of the sudden falls in river stage. Because of the resistance offered by any construction in the flooded stream, sand would tend to accumulate about such works. It is subsequent to these sudden falls that the dredging corps has to exert its utmost power in order to maintain the nine-foot depth of the dredging project. The removal of the sand from the wiers and locks would not necessarily last throughout the low-water season. Oftentimes secondary rises of the river occur which move the sand waves down-stream and obscure the trace of any previous work in dredging. Canalization, furthermore, would not make unnecessary the dredging plant. It is likely that as large a plant would be required. Dredging is carried on in the canalized rivers of Europe.

The river is long and tortuous. It has a width varying from one-half mile to a mile. The distance from Cairo to the sea is about 600 miles; there are over 1,700 miles of river in this distance, A meander of the river adds from twelve to twenty-five miles to the length of the river, with but a mile or two of gain in distance towards the sea. The current of the river is directed alternately against the banks of the stream. Scour and caving result and sediment is added to the river. The change of locality of the river current thus engendered must be stopped in order to make the expensive canalization works other than temporary constructions. To stop this scour, dirt levees and brush revetments will not suffice. It means more solid walls on both sides of a very long river. It means an enormous appropriation and years of labor. The width of the river will add to the item of expense. A thoughtful person would deliberate and weigh carefully all the factors bearing upon the problem before advocating such an expenditure as this plan contemplates, even if he were absolutely sure of the ultimate success of it; and success in this canalization project, from our present knowledge, is not so to be rated.

It is comforting to know that procedure in this enterprise is to be slow, and that there will be time and money for a detailed study of the problem, and an opportunity for a thorough consideration of the report of the investigating committee before the country is harnessed to any definite system of regulation. There may be a call for haste as far as the immediate needs of the people of the valley are concerned. However, whatever system is inaugurated can only be begun to-day, will take years for the fulfillment and should endure for a long time. We have the assurance, furthermore, of a thorough agitation of the whole inland waterway question. In compliance with the request of numerous commercial organizations of the Mississippi Valley, the President has appointed an Inland Waterways Commission. This commission is directed to investigate the problems of inland waterways and to report with recommendations upon the problems relating thereto.

There is in the present River and Harbor Bill, in the portion relating to the Mississippi River, and in the appointment by the President a promise that the United States has instituted a more comprehensive plan than has up to this time been possible. Much of the debate on the River and Harbor Bill had back of it the sectional spirit, the demands of a locality upon its representative in congress. There is room for a larger view of river regulation than the satisfying of constituents; and the new Inland Waterways Commission can gain for us no greater boon than to infuse the states with the spirit of cooperation in place of that of rivalry.

  1. H. R. 24991. An act making appropriations for the construction, repair and preservation of certain public works on rivers and harbors and for other purposes.
  2. Report of the Mississippi River Commission for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1906, p. 2470.
  3. Congressional Records Vol. 41, 2427, February, 1901