NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - The trillions of gallons of water pouring through the Bonnet Carre Spillway would fill the Superdome— at the current rate— in about 14 minutes.
While the spillway prevents catastrophe in New Orleans and many of its suburbs, many people in Mississippi complain it shifts disaster to their doorstep, diverting massive amounts of water through Lake Pontchartrain and into the Mississippi Sound.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is even threatening to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a last resort over damage to the environment and fisheries.
“I think they just made a decision they’re going to dump it on the Mississippi side first,” Hood told reporters Thursday.
He questions why, given the lengthy flood of 2019, the Corps has yet to operate the Morganza Spillway upriver from Baton Rouge, which would divert water into the Atchafalaya Basin.
Congress authorized the Bonnet Carre following the Great Flood of 1927.
At the time, it was thought the spillway would operate every five years or so, which is generally how things went with the exception of an active period in the 1970s.
The spillway has operated for a total of 78 days in 2019-- with no firm date for closing the structure-- and twice in one year for the first time.
“The actions over time, and time again, are affecting the state of Mississippi and its resources,” complains Moby Solangi, Ph.D., President and Executive Director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport.
“It’s not fair that you don’t give them a seat at the table,” Solangi said.
At least one member of the Louisiana congressional delegation points out the spillway generally works as intended.
“It’s not like the authorities are opening the Bonnet Carre Spillway every other Thursday,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana. “This is a very rare occurrence and they don’t do it unless they know they have to prevent a large loss of life and property.”
Critics complain the science and technology behind the spillway have long been out of date. However, the current alternatives all bring their own levels of suffering and economic harm.
Diverting more water down the Morganza Spillway would pose flooding problems for people near Morgan City, including some who live outside the Morganza floodway.
That ecosystem also suffers the effects of the runoff from much of the rest of the country, as the swollen Atchafalaya River pours fresh water and nutrients into the Gulf.
State biologists reported this week the white shrimp count in the Atchafalaya/Vermilion basin is off 85 percent from the average.
“We’re probably going to see more spillway openings unless we begin to work the system differently,” said John Lopez, Ph.D., Coastal Sustainability Program Director for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
Lopez sees opportunity in rethinking the purpose behind the giant structures.
“Structures like the Bonnet Carre Spillway right now are under strict authority to only be used for flood protection,” Lopez said. “There may be ways to use that structure for (coastal) restoration as well.”
Any change in the protocol for operating Bonnet Carre or the Morganza would require the approval of congress, Corps officials say.
Under the Corps’ Water Control Manual for the Bonnet Carre, the spillway opens when the Mississippi River flow in New Orleans reaches 1,250,000 cubic feet per second, enough to fill the Superdome in 100 seconds.
Even before the spillway opening this year, congress had ordered Corps hydrologists to begin an assessment of its various flood control tools.