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Mississippi River's historic march to the sea

Water. There are days when we’ll take any we can get, and others when we can’t get rid of it fast enough.

Then there are those historic times when all we can do is get out of its way – when the elixir of life morphs into William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea.

But not even the major general’s defining campaign could match the sheer power of what’s been stampeding down the Mississippi River all week. When the Mississippi River finally crested at 47.87 feet in Memphis on May 10, it was just short of the 48.7 record set in 1937.

A Corps of Engineers spokesman said the rate and volume of water flowing through the Mississippi River at Memphis was so immense it could fill a football field 44 feet deep, in one second. Standing on a sunny, downtown Memphis bluff – all that H2O tearing down the river is a stunning sight to behold.

Not to trivialize the problems being caused by this historic rise in the river, but from my particular vantage point that afternoon, it was not hard to imagine the Mississippi as a heck of a lot of potential irrigation water rushing down a big ditch to nowhere.

With that in mind, here are some agriculture-related facts to kick around, expanding a bit on the Corps’ analysis of flow rate.

Not that you would unleash this much muddy water at once, but Old Man River at its current flow rate could put 4 inches of water on 120 acres of rice by the time you said, “flood fight,” 14,400 acres by the time you’ve read this column and 864,000 acres by the time it takes to break for lunch. In seven hours, it could irrigate every single rice acre in the United States; in two or three days, provide all the water the U.S. rice crop needs in a season. In a couple of weeks, enough to irrigate the entire U.S. rice crop for the next 10 years.

At the current flow rate of the Mississippi River, the daily irrigation need for all of U.S. agriculture roars past Memphis in 2 hours and 12 minutes. The annual irrigation need for all of U.S. agriculture will pass under the Mississippi Bridge during the month of May.

One of these days, we may possess the technology, willpower and political courage to make significant improvements in our ability to harness the waters of the Mississippi River Basin, so we can tap this great resource to cheaply and efficiently supply water for agriculture while protecting people, towns, farms, ranches, wildlife and infrastructure from frequent flooding.

But this time around, most of us just want to see the river drop and the floodwaters recede, so we can assign this historic flood to the ages.



TAGS: Legislative
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