The Mississippi: Meeting a Mighty Problem


WHEN Fernando de Soto returned from the West to the great river he had discovered, he found it in flood. La Vega, in an account written about 1580, gives this graphic picture of the Father of Waters before the country was in any way affected by the white man: —

Then God, our Lord, hindered the work with a mighty flood of the great river, which, at that time — aboutt the eighth or tenth of March [of 1543] — began to come down with an enormous increase of water; which in the beginning overflowed the wide level ground between the river and the cliffs; then little by little it rose to the top of the cliffs. [The high vertical banks of the river look like cliffs.] Soon it began to flow over the fields in an immense flood, and as the land was level without any hills there was nothing to stop the inundation.

On the 18th of March of 1543, which that year was Palm Sunday, when the Spaniards were marching in procession, the river entered with ferocity through the gates of the town of Aminoya, and two days later they were unable to go through the streets except in canoes.

The flood was 40 days in reaching its greatest height, which was the 20th of April, and it was a beautiful thing to look upon the sea where there had been fields, for on each side of the river the water extended over twenty leagues of land, and all of this area was navigated by canoes, and nothing was seen but the tops of the tallest trees.

On account of these inundations of the river the people build their houses on the high land, and where there is none, they raise mounds by hand, especially for the houses of the chiefs; the houses are constructed three or four stages above the ground, on thick posts that serve as uprights, and between uprights they lay beams for the floors, and above these floors, which are of wood, they make the roof, with galleries around the four sides of the house where they store their food and other supplies, and here they take refuge from the great floods. . . .

By the end of May the river had returned within its banks.

Local tradition has it that the highest flood on the Mississippi in the region from St. Louis to Cairo was in 1785. The next highest in the same region, and this time there are definite records, occurred in 1844, when the primeval forests were largely intact. This year also saw the greatest recorded floods on such widely separated streams as the Illinois River, the Red River in Texas, and the Kaw River in Kansas.

The 1844 flood on the Mississippi was but slightly, if at all, restrained by levees, and the water was free to spread over great areas, yet the stage between St. Louis and Cairo was two feet above that of the great flood of 1927. Confined between levees like those now along the river, it probably would have reached a stage much above the 1927 crest.

Floods large and small are a natural characteristic of the Mississippi and are not due in any large degree to the actions of men, either in cutting forests, tilling land, or draining swamps. Whether such activities actually increase or decrease floods on the river, no one knows. There probably will be greater floods in the future than have occurred during the white man’s occupation. If is an inaccurate statement with which ex-Governor Pinchot begins a most interesting and suggestive article in a recent number of the Survey: ‘The Mississippi flood is a manmade disaster.’ In the same number, ex-Governor Parker of Louisiana makes a similar error: ‘Our troubles are due to no carelessness on our part, but largely to deforestation, tile drainage, and the hurling at us, in an irresistible flood, of the waters of our thirty sister states between the Appalachians and the Rockies.’ The scientific attitude of accurate observation and correct statement is a good beginning, even for the consideration of public questions. The public mind has been bewildered by biased propaganda on the subject.

Governor Pinchot also remarks, ‘Where the river flows and how it flows represents a vast and beautiful natural equilibrium established among them all. When men destroy that equilibrium, naturally they pay the price.’ There is no such equilibrium. The continents have been unmade and remade many times, and the process still is going on. The relation of natural river channels to their own flood flows, and to man’s use, is entirely accidental. Some rivers have dug channels a hundred times the size necessary to carry their greatest flood flows, as in the case of the Niagara River in the gorge below the Falls, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and the Hudson above New York City. Others never have made channels large enough. The Miami River in Ohio in its natural condition is nowhere large enough to carry more than a tenth of its extreme flood.

The rivers flowing through the hill country that surrounds the Mississippi coastal plain have cut deep and narrow valleys, but where they leave the hills and enter the plain their channels are completely inadequate. The Black River, which has an extreme flood flow of more than a hundred thousand cubic feet per second in the Missouri hills, on entering the plains has a channel which will carry only three thousand. The Coldwater River of northern Mississippi will occasionally discharge one hundred thousand cubic feet per second through its deep valley in the hills, but on reaching the flat country its channel will carry less than one thousand.

The Little River of Missouri completely loses its channel in the flat woods, though this stream and its branches emerge from the hills with a maximum flood flow of more than one hundred thousand cubic feet per second. Measures for its control have been undertaken, and hundreds of square miles of swampy woods over which it formerly spread are now being turned into fertile farms. Compared with the channels of these tributaries, that of the Mississippi is fairly adequate, since it will carry about a third of the extreme flow.

There is no established equilibrium of nature in the formation of rivers. In the week of creation, man finds himself entering the scene along the lower Mississippi perhaps on Wednesday morning. It is left to him to finish the job and to make over the earth to suit his necessity. Floods like those on the Mississippi are not penalties for past sins, but a stimulus to his spirit of mastery.


Except for that projection into the Gulf which forms the southeastern part of Louisiana, the so-called ‘Mississippi Delta,’ from southeastern Missouri to the Gulf Coast, is not a true delta, like that of the Yellow River of China, but has a very different geological origin. The Gulf of Mexico formerly extended northward to the mouth of the Ohio River. A few miles southeast of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, five hundred miles from the present Gulf coast, the ancient sand dunes still stand along the shore line of that prehistoric sea. Protected by vegetation, their sides are almost as steep as when the tide cast its spray about them.

Gradually, through the ages, the old bed of the Gulf has been slowly tilting upward, until now the northern portion is more than three hundred feet above sea level, and there is a continuous and fairly uniform slope southward to the present Gulf coast of Louisiana. This tilting is not a uniformly steady motion, but progresses with spasms of activity. Such a period of disturbance along the ancient ocean shore line occurred about a century ago. In the region of southern Missouri, southern Illinois, and western Tennessee, there were about two thousand earthquake shocks from 1811 to 1813. Shaler, the geologist, was of the opinion that this was the most violent disturbance of the earth’s crust in recorded human history, and that similar convulsions are certain to recur, at intervals of perhaps a century.

So violent were some of these tremors that two great bodies of water were formed, covering many square miles. Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, and Big Lake in the St. Francis Basin of Missouri and Arkansas, are monuments to the ‘New Madrid Earthquake.’ By such methods the plain of the so-called ‘Mississippi Delta’ is slowly lifting itself above sea level.

Geologically speaking, the Father of Waters in the coastal plain is a very young and wayward, though a hardworking, river. From the mouth of the Ohio River to the Gulf it has ploughed a very crooked channel for itself. The term ‘ploughed’ fairly describes the process, for the material removed from the channel has not necessarily been carried to the Gulf. During floods the turbulent water stirs up the sand and mud in the river bed and carries it out over the banks. Within a few miles of the river about as much earth is piled up above the general ground level as would be necessary to fill the river channel.

This description is oversimplified, and gives only a roughly accurate impression of the process.

There is no definite evidence to sustain the popular opinion that the river is building up its bed. The comparison so frequently made between the Mississippi and the Yellow River of China is misleading. The Mississippi flows through a plain that is tilted up hundreds of feet above sea level at its upper end. The Yellow River, on the contrary, flows through a true delta, built up from below sea level by river silt. This silt is carried out to sea, and from there is washed back to shore by the tides and deposited as a flat plain with little or no slope. Except when restrained by levees, the Yellow River wanders over this plain, dropping silt along the way, and so produces what slight slope there is along its lower course.

Moreover, the Yellow River carries as much as ten per cent of its weight of silt, while the Mississippi rarely carries a fifth of one per cent, and averages less than a fifteenth of one per cent. The Yellow River does build up its bed, but that is no reason for assuming that the Mississippi must do likewise, or that the two problems require the same treatment.

The land along the Mississippi is highest at the river edge, and gradually slopes back about five to seven feet in the first mile, and perhaps ten or twelve feet in the next three or four miles. This description requires detailed modification for various localities. In the lower land back from the river, and ten to thirty miles distant, are smaller streams roughly parallel to the Mississippi. They gather up the local drainage, and finally break through the high bank into the river. Such breaks commonly are near the outlets of the main tributaries. Most of these large tributaries also have high banks, and so the flooded territory naturally divides itself into about six large basins that are natural and semi-independent units, and to a large degree can be protected independently of each other.


The first settlers along the Mississippi farmed the high land near the river. The soil was fertile and easily cultivated, whereas the ‘buckshot’ and ‘gumbo’ clays in the bottoms back from the river were harder to till. The front lands were better drained and less subject to overflow. Yet overflows did occur, and the planters began to build little levees along the river front. Then neighbors joined their levees together, and after many years levee districts were formed by state laws, with power to tax the lands for construction funds.

Finally the national government established the Mississippi River Commission, composed of army engineers and civilian appointees, one of its duties being to make surveys and to coördinate the policies of the various districts. Army engineers were stationed at various points along the river to furnish local supervision under direction of the Commission. For a time the federal government gave advice, but furnished no funds for construction, except for bank protection. Then, under the fiction of helping navigation, it began to pay one third of the cost of the levees, and during recent years it has paid two thirds of the cost. A total of about $240,000,000 has been spent by the local districts and the national government for levees alone.

Half a century ago various persons, most of them without adequate information or training, began agitating for control of the Mississippi by means of reservoirs, auxiliary channels, spillways, and other devices. Most of these schemes were wildly impractical in the form in which they were submitted, and the army engineers entered into a hard fight for ‘levees only,’ and they won. In eliminating spillways and in trying to hold down the flow of the Atchafalaya River, a natural overflow for the Mississippi, they seem to have made costly mistakes, but they helped otherwise to prevent a vast waste of public funds through the execution of badly conceived plans. Most of the alternative schemes had been presented in such crude form as to destroy any possibility of successful execution, and some of them involved rash expense; whereas, for using the limited funds available, levees were about the best form of investment.

Yet this victory of the army engineers and of the Mississippi River Commission had certain very unfortunate results. The doctrine of ‘levees only,’ emphasized by a bitter struggle, instead of being considered as a practical economic expedient became almost a religious dogma, to be implicitly believed on authority, and not to be critically examined. During the past forty years, the Mississippi River Commission has promoted higher and stronger levees; but, in assuming that device to be the one and only solution, they were diverted from making the very extensive and comprehensive studies on which a permanent policy should be based.

During the half century of the Mississippi River Commission a thorough scientific study of the Mississippi problem in general has not been made. These years of golden opportunity have been wasted, and to-day, when the country calls impatiently for a plan of relief, the fundamental facts on which an enduring policy must be based are still to be determined. The report of the Chief of Engineers of the United States Army for last year contained the following opinion concerning the work on the Mississippi: ‘It may be stated that in a general way the improvement is providing a safe and adequate channel for navigation, and is now in condition to prevent the destructive effects of floods.’ An engineer friend who is exceptionally well acquainted with the conditions writes in a recent letter: ‘A thorough study of the whole Mississippi River problem is badly needed. Rip Van Winkle slept only twenty years.’

I believe that not less than ten or twenty years of hard work at accumulating and digesting facts and information will be necessary before any board of engineers, no matter how brilliant its personnel, can outline finally a sound and enduring policy. Some elements of such a policy can be determined and carried into effect in much shorter time, so there need not be ten or twenty years of inaction; but to embark to-day on a vast programme of construction, without the necessary foundation of data, not only would cause the probable waste of hundreds of millions of dollars, but might commit us to a mistaken policy, and so make still more difficult, if not impossible, the proper final solution. It is entirely impossible to prepare an adequate plan for the coming session of Congress. The Mississippi River Commission and the army engineers would best serve the country by openly acknowledging that fact.

There should be a new and thorough study of the entire situation. Every possible solution should be exhaustingly explored and compared with every other, until it is thoroughly confirmed or thoroughly disproved. The panaceas we have denounced should be examined just as thoroughly and carefully as the methods we have favored. Only in that way can the engineer protect his work against his own unconscious prejudice. I formerly was thoroughly imbued with the army engineer’s disbelief in reservoirs for flood control, but in the largest project I ever planned I investigated reservoirs, simply in pursuance of the policy of exhausting every possibility, and to my surprise I was driven to use them as the main feature of that project. Nothing is so fatal to good engineering as the habit of arriving at conclusions before every remote possibility has been thoroughly examined. Generally the final plan will not be any one device, but a carefully balanced combination of elements. This process of comprehensive, exhaustive investigation never has been followed through on the Mississippi.

One reason for our unpreparedness in plans for flood control is ‘ Washington science.’

Do you believe that the cutting of forests seriously affects floods? If you are a government employee, your opinion will depend upon what department you serve. If you represent the Forest Service, you are sure forests do affect floods. The article by exChief Forester Pinchot, just quoted, emphasizes that belief, and officials of the Forest Service are now expressing the same opinion. If you represent the Weather Bureau, you are equally certain that deforestation does not affect floods.

The army engineers are the silent, ‘practical’ men of the situation. The dogma of ‘levees only’ having been adopted by the Mississippi River Commission about half a century ago, it has been the duty of the engineers to drive ahead consistently, being careful not to disturb this authoritative policy by embarrassing investigations and research.

‘When all is said and done, it is only the army engineers who really know the Mississippi.’ In these words a prominent writer expresses a tradition which exists at our national capitol. If the opinion is sound, either it is because the training of the army engineer at West Point in hydraulic engineering and flood control is peculiarly effective, or else because the experience of the army engineer especially qualifies him in that field.

I believe there is no claim that a West Point education bestows unusual facility in hydraulics and flood control, and when we come to the facts of the situation we find that the army engineer’s experience does not supply him with even a fair basis for judgment on this type of problem. To give army engineers versatility of experience, so as to fit them for military duty in time of war, they are continually shifted about. An engineer may have been sent to the Mississippi from an assignment of governing a military post. On arriving, he is expected to be an authority, not only on flood control, but on the many other duties of his new position. After a short period (until recently only two years at a post was customary) he is transferred to another station, perhaps to harbor dredging on the Great Lakes. During his assignment on the Mississippi he does well to become acquainted with even the necessary routine administration.

Now, to become an authority on so complicated and technical a subject as flood control requires years of preparation and experience. What better can the army engineer do than accept the infallible dogma of ‘levees only’ handed him by the authoritative Mississippi River Commission, and hold to it like a good soldier without wavering? The Mississippi River Commission, which sometimes has been dominated by civilian members, determines general policies for the Mississippi. The engineers stationed along the river administer policies they have not originated. From the sheer force of public opinion, and against the tradition of the Mississippi River Commission, ‘spillways also’ is just now being added to this creed.

Many of these army engineers are men of fine native ability, and some have exercised vigorous independent initiative. Everyone at Memphis remembers Major Walker, now General Walker of the Canal Zone. During his brief assignment at Memphis he vigorously attacked the problem of construction equipment, endeavoring to displace by modern machinery the old levee-building methods. He worked hard and intelligently, but a new assignment called him before he had more than begun even this limited task. Other army engineers have shown similar intelligent interest, but good results are almost impossible under the system. I think I know by heart all the arguments in rebuttal — civilian assistants, the permanent Mississippi River Commission, and the local levee boards; but I believe my criticisms hold. The lack of a scientific attitude on the part of the Commission has been too much to overcome.


Many popular articles on the control of the Mississippi give expression to favorite panaceas. The general public, the sentimental conservationists, and the Bureau of Forestry, all give great weight to reforestation. The responsible civil engineers of the country generally dismiss it as having no practical relation to flood control.

Several years ago I made an effort to reach an independent judgment, but the following figures are from memory, as my notes are not available. A growing tree is a powerful pump. On a warm dry day in our Southern states a tree will lift out of wet soil and into the air perhaps half an inch of water from the forest area. English engineers in India have determined that a forest sometimes lowers the ground water level fifteen feet below similarly located, cultivated land adjoining.

When a forest pumps water out of the ground it leaves a soil reservoir for additional rains, but the water thus evaporated may travel only a short distance before it falls again as rain. In the North Central states the year’s rainfall in general is evaporated at least twice and falls the third time before it flows away in the streams; that is, the rainfall is about thirty-five inches a year, but the run-off in the streams of the drainage area is less than twelve inches. In Iowa the rainfall is five times the run-off. In dry years forests may rob the streams of their ground water by pumping it into air too dry to allow it to fall again as rain, whereas in wet seasons water pumped from the soil into the nearly saturated atmosphere may soon fall again, adding to the damage of excessive rainfall. These relations are so complex that no one has worked them out with assurance of accuracy.

In specific cases on small areas forestation may materially assist in practical flood control, but I believe that on the whole the effect is so slight that it is unsound to adopt general forestation as any part of a widespread flood-control programme for the Mississippi. I am a thorough believer in forestry for the direct value of the forests.

As to the value of reservoirs on the headwaters of the Mississippi, I very seriously doubt whether they have any proper place in a general flood-control plan for the lower river. The two largest reservoir systems in the basin are those on the headwaters of the main stream in northern Minnesota and on the Miami River in Ohio. The influence of the former system disappears in Minnesota, and the Miami River system is of little if any value on the Ohio River, only sixty miles away. It was built for local protection and is valuable for that purpose alone.

A billion dollars for reservoirs on the head streams would scarcely affect the lower Mississippi. It is possible that there are a few effective sites for reservoirs well down on the larger tributaries. Pittsburgh has developed a flood-control plan, providing for seventeen reservoirs above the city, which is being suggested as a possible help in controlling Mississippi floods. I believe that the construction of this system would fail entirely to benefit the Mississippi.

The types of reservoirs built for local protection on the headwaters, such as those on the Miami River in Ohio and the Arkansas at Pueblo, Colorado, of necessity are entirely useless for flood control on the lower Mississippi. Except for rare cases, such as the proposed Boulder Dam on the Colorado River, where vast storage capacity is available in an unsettled country, storage for flood control and for power development are in striking conflict. Floodcontrol reservoirs need to be kept empty and ready for flood service, while power-development reservoirs need to be kept full to ensure steady power. It usually is a grave mistake to try to combine them.

The excessive rains which cause any single flood seldom extend over more than twenty per cent of the whole drainage area of the Mississippi. To be sure of controlling floods by reservoirs on the headwaters, even if they were feasible in other respects, the reservoirs should have at least five times the necessary capacity for any one flood, since the flood may come from any direction. For these and other reasons, flood control on the lower Mississippi by means of reservoirs on the headwaters in general is a delusion. Yet it is not safe to dogmatize even here. A careful study, such as never has been made, might possibly lead to the development of a few large reservoir projects on the larger tributaries that would play a minor but valuable and economical part in a flood-control programme.

But there is a type of reservoir which holds promise of definite value. Wherever main tributaries enter the lower Mississippi — namely, the St. Francis, White, Arkansas, and Red Rivers on the west, and the Yazoo River on the east — there is an area between the two rivers above their junction which is covered with backwater during floods. I have it on the authority of those who have made careful estimates that this storage has a material effect on stages in the lower river.

Moreover, these large areas are heavily wooded, and the steady evaporation of perhaps half an inch of water a day from the leaves of trees might have a small but distinct effect on river stages below. These reservoirs are sure to catch the water from almost any source; they are already in existence, and will cost little to hold. Yet it is these very reservoirs that many people of the South, and the proponents of ‘levees only,’ are seeking to destroy, though the army engineers have stood for their retention. To many people ‘the completion of the levee system’ means carrying the Mississippi levees, and the levees on the main tributaries, down to their junctions, with backwater levees for the smaller streams between, and with pumping plants for areas having no gravity outlets. Thus these natural reservoirs, the only ones having any present value for general flood control, would be done away with.

As to spillways or outlets in addition to levees for the lower river, the Mississippi River Commission has long fought against them, but seems now about to surrender to the overwhelming opinion of the people on the lower river. I think we may assume that spillways will be a part of any future progress.

‘Flood protection by levees has failed.’ That, to-day, is the popular cry. But the system of protection by levees has not been a failure. Since the first settlement of the region, with inadequate funds available, the policy of ‘levees only,’ except for the omission of spillways and outlets, has been on the whole a reasonably sound, practical expedient, and to the army engineers is due much of the credit for sticking to that system. In only seven years out of thirty, I believe, have there been breaks anywhere in the main levee, and in one of the greatest areas, the Upper Yazoo Levee District, there has not been a single break in thirty years.

The tragic failure of the Mississippi River Commission was in considering ‘levees only’ to be, not simply a practical expedient, but a sacred dogma, and in letting the precious years pass without seeing the problem as a whole, and assembling and organizing the facts on which a permanent policy can be based.


What are some of the facts we shall need for developing a policy? I will suggest only a few.

How much water was stored in the natural reservoirs at the mouths of the main tributaries? How much was evaporated directly from overflow areas? Until this water is better accounted for than it has been, we do not know what channel capacity to provide.

How large floods should be provided against? Past estimates are entirely inadequate.

What are the hydraulic characteristics of the great river? At what velocities does the river begin to deposit mud, sand, gravel? At what velocities, and under exactly what conditions, does it begin to cut its banks? What forms, shapes, and sizes of channel would correct these deficiencies? Our opinions on these matters are largely the rule-of-thumb judgments of old river men, or are based on scattering and insufficient observations by the Mississippi River Commission.

To what extent would it be possible to train so great a river by submerged jetties or other constructions?

How much silt and sand are carried by the river? How far is it carried? How much comes from caving banks along the river, and how much is brought down from the tributaries?

Perhaps the best suggestion so far presented for securing such information is a national hydraulics laboratory, proposed in a bill introduced in Congress by Senator Ransdell of Louisiana, at the suggestion of Mr. John R. Freeman, the eminent hydraulic engineer. Such a laboratory, with an appropriation of a million dollars a year for twenty years, including the cost of field investigations on the river itself, perhaps under the direction of the National Bureau of Standards or the Water Resources Branch of the United States Geological Survey, but preferably under an independent Flood Control Commission, would go far toward answering the fundamental technical questions involved. Such a laboratory would serve not only the Mississippi River but every community in the nation suffering from floods, and many other communities and interests that have hydraulic problems. Its management would not necessarily be in the same hands as the actual construction of flood-control works, and it could draw upon all the technical resources of the government without duplicating either personnel or equipment.

The levee-building machinery on the lower river during the past twenty years has been evolving from the primitive negro-mule-scraper outfit to the use of modern machinery. Coöperation with mechanical engineers and equipment manufacturers might further revolutionize present processes and save many millions of dollars. A study of methods and materials for bank revetment is essential.

There should be a disinterested economic survey. Is it wise to protect the whole flooded area at the present time? National funds have been spent freely in recent years without any such analysis. Take, for instance, the great flooded area between the Arkansas and Red Rivers on the west side of the Mississippi. This requires nearly four hundred miles of high levee for its protection, almost the longest stretch on the river, yet of the land protected only about ten per cent is in cultivation. Much of it is primeval forest.

The South now wrestles with the problem of overproduction of cotton, and the labor supply grows steadily more inadequate as negroes go north. Like the rest of America, it needs less land in cultivation, rather than more. Under such conditions, why spend scores of millions of dollars of national money reclaiming millions of acres, like most of the tract just described, which are not now in cultivation, and for which there is no present need? Would it be feasible to depopulate a few of these great sparsely settled areas, just as millions of acres of uneconomic farm land are being abandoned in all parts of America? Even in populous Ohio over half a million acres have been given up in this way. The sentiment against leaving the old home has not weighed against the economic balance. Why not let some of this land grow much-needed hardwood timber, and move the thinly scattered population to other thinly populated districts? The result would be a wholesome reconstruction of economic life, with economy and great improvement in roads, ditches, schoolhouses, and social conditions.

If the greater portion of the flooded area between the Arkansas and Red Rivers should be left unprotected until it is really needed, and the land be allowed to overflow, the levees on the opposite side of the river would then be sufficient, and the storage of flood waters in the lowlands would reduce the river stages farther south. A large part of the total cost of flood control might be saved for fifty years. Why spend several dollars of government money to protect one dollar’s worth of cultivated land? The speculative owners of waste land will object, and that brings us to the next issue.

Who will benefit by this work of the government if it is done without cost to the local interests? As a matter of fact, a considerable part of the overflowed land is owned in large tracts by corporations. Vast areas were bought from the states at from twenty-five cents to a dollar and a quarter an acre. (The national government gave millions of acres of this land to the states, the income from its sale to be used for flood control.) These owners have paid much more than the purchase price in taxes, but most of them have made good profits from the timber, even if they should now give back the land itself. Any value added to the land by national expenditure will be added by these speculative owners to their selling prices, and the national government will be contributing scores of millions of dollars to their treasuries. Why should the government do this?

Would it not be wise, if the government is to pay a part of the cost of flood control, to limit that help to holdings of two square miles or less, and only in case a material part of such area is occupied in good faith and is being put into cultivation; exceeding that area only for plantations that now are actually cultivated under centralized ownership and administration? In case of larger holdings, would it not be well to charge the whole cost to the owner?

If such owners cannot pay, let them return the land to the national government, to be held as national hardwood forests, or for settlement by small home owners. This limitation of ownership would be in accord with the federal reclamation policy, though in that case much smaller holdings were allowed. The national government might then pay the whole cost of reclaiming its own holdings. Such a programme would require state legislation, but such legislation could be made a condition of receiving federal assistance.

Two square miles may seem a large homestead to exempt from paying the whole cost, but in some parts of the South farming is in larger units than in the North. The more energetic and progressive planters often own and manage large tracts, renting to negro tenants in patches of ten or twenty acres. I doubt the wisdom of suddenly disturbing that agricultural economy.

There will be an intensive effort during this session of Congress to keep the attention of the nation centred on the poor man and his family floating downriver on his housetop. There will be a concerted effort in some quarters to avoid all thoroughgoing analysis, and to get the government committed to a programme of vast expenditures while public sympathy is at white heat.


There is an even greater issue involved than the prevention of Mississippi floods — the preservation of our tradition of national economic stability. No constitutional barriers protect our government from fatal deterioration through unsound economic policy. Only the temper of the people can do that. The evil precedents which destroy nations are made in times of great stress, when emotion overrules judgment.

If almost any American community or interest, either North or South, can get money from the national treasury without cost, it will do so without compunction. To the imagination of the average citizen, the national treasury, with its hundreds of millions of surplus, is an inexhaustible source of wealth. Speaking from a quarter of a century of experience in flood control, part of the time in the federal service, where I came into first-hand contact with the American attitude toward the national treasury, I believe I have never known a community, North or South, which would not take federal funds if it could get them, and which would not spend them more wastefully than if the local community were required to pay the bill.

If the lower Mississippi were unique in its needs and deserts, it might well be made an exception to a national policy of local self-help. But it is not unique. I have just come from a great region in northern Minnesota where three quarters of the settlers have abandoned their homes and moved away, unable to meet the taxes imposed by reclamation, and unable to bear the burden of pioneering in adverse years. On the middle Rio Grande in New Mexico two thirds of the land has gone out of cultivation through excess of water. These people would like government help. In 1913 the Miami Valley of Ohio lost a hundred million dollars in twenty-four hours, and four times as many lives as were lost in the recent Mississippi floods. The people have spent thirty-five millions for protection and would like to be relieved of the resulting burden of taxation. The suddenness of this disaster precluded the gradual development of dramatic interest.

The planter along the lower Mississippi takes risks of a flood from the river, and once in six or seven years he loses. The dry farmer of the West takes risks of too little water, and loses half the time. A hundred American cities are awaiting their turn to experience catastrophes comparable to those of Dayton, Hamilton, Columbus, Pueblo, and Erie, and each would like to have the nation shoulder its burdens. A hundred river valleys will have floods on a smaller scale, as serious in proportion as that on the Mississippi.

Congress may be about to establish a national policy which will rise up to face us as a precedent on every recurrence of a catastrophe. What shall it be?

May I outline four possible courses? First is that of paying the whole cost from government funds. This is demanded by the South. In the words of Governor Martineau of Arkansas, ‘Mississippi floods can and should be controlled. This is a national responsibility, the expense of which should be borne entirely by the federal government.’

Such a policy, I believe, in time would menace our national economic stability. Local interests would submerge any sense of national responsibility. With such a policy established, Congress would deteriorate, because that candidate would be elected who could ‘bring home the bacon,’ and his ability in that respect would depend on his capacity for logrolling.

Southern leaders present flood relief as a national obligation, but the facts are against them. If anyone has violated nature’s laws in this case, it is those who have made their homes on lands which have been flooded from time immemorial.

If there is any merit in these claims, it is so small and so completely undetermined as not to serve as the basis of an obligation. The states draining into the Mississippi are under scarcely more moral obligation to prevent floods on the lower river than is California under obligation to the drouth-stricken Nevada farmers because California mountains cut off the rain-bearing winds from the Pacific. The cause of both troubles lies in the configuration of the continent.

If Congress should adopt the policy of paying the whole cost of Mississippi flood control, it will be but opening a Pandora’s box of troubles, for every other flood-stricken section will want similar treatment. In every part of America, Congressmen and their constituents are calculating the consideration they will receive in return for their votes in favor of controlling Mississippi floods at national expense.

A second method would be for Congress to make long-time loans at a low rate of interest. This policy, I believe, would be as pernicious as the first, for the region affected would be plunged into a campaign of nullification.

I speak not from distrust of any specific section, but from observations of Americans in relation to national funds. Under the National Reclamation Act the national government loaned funds to settlers on irrigation projects, to be returned through a long term of years. (Whereas along the lower Mississippi the national government gave its lands outright to the states, the proceeds of their sale to be used by the states for reclamation and flood control, in the West the national government sold the lands itself and administered the funds for reclamation under the National Reclamation Act, and later added to this fund by direct appropriation, to be reimbursed in installments.) The nullification of these reclamation debts has been a live issue in the West. With a compact body of voters like those on the lower Mississippi, nullification would be a dominant and corroding political issue for a generation to come.

As a third possible course, the localities needing relief might be required to pay the whole cost. That has been the traditional American policy, except for a few cases such as the special favors granted to the states along the lower Mississippi in their flood-protection work in the past. A sound argument can be made for this policy.

As against these methods I propose a programme of far-reaching consequence. It has elements of evil as well as of good, but I believe it represents a possible sound public policy, which can be applied at all times and in all sections of the country, without the necessity for false claims or misrepresentative propaganda, and without the necessity for political logrolling.

I propose that the government adopt a national policy concerning flood control and allied work, whereby the national government will pay a certain specified part, — for instance, a half of the cost, — provided that the localities particularly affected pay the other half; and that this policy apply to all such undertakings throughout the country, and not alone to the lower Mississippi. An almost identical policy now is followed for national assistance in highway construction. Such help should not be available to large tracts of land held for speculative purposes.

Such a national policy would reduce waste. A community will not be excessively wasteful if it has to pay for even half the cost. I can point to government expenditures on our Southern rivers where the work would not have been done if even ten per cent of the cost had been charged back to the locality actually interested in the socalled improvement.

This policy would help all similar cases, even though the area covered were not large enough to capture the nation’s sympathy or to bring pressure on Congress. It would take the keen edge off disaster and catastrophe, or prevent their occurrence. It would emphasize the fact that we are one people and mutually interdependent, and would build up a realization of common interests, which is one of the strongest bonds of national unity. The South could then get help in an honorable manner, without recourse to the present subterfuge of ‘helping navigation,’ one of those political hypocrisies that become sacrosanct by long acquiescence, or making false claims as to the origin of its troubles. Any policy which encourages political straightforwardness is good for the national health.

In the course of time such federal expenditures would be distributed fairly evenly over the country, and no part would be fighting to hold a vested right to insolvency, to be supported by the rest. National supervision of planning and construction would tend to improve standards of design. A nucleus of professional engineers, giving their lives to that particular field, might reach standards of excellence which few private organizations could achieve — provided that ‘ Washington science’ and political appointments can be eliminated, as they are very largely eliminated in the Bureau of Standards and in the United States Geological Survey.

What if the farmers and planters of the lower Mississippi cannot pay even half the cost of reclamation? Their land is repeatedly spoken of as the most fertile in the world. During the past thirty years very few areas have lost more than four crops from Mississippi overflow. One of the largest of these areas has not had an overflow in thirty years. If such land cannot pay half the cost of its protection, should we not inquire carefully into the cause? Perhaps for some reason it is not worth reclaiming, or perhaps there is something vitally wrong with its agricultural and financial economy.


I will close with a résumé of a suggested practical national programme with reference to the Mississippi and to flood control in general.

First, let the national government at its own expense repair the crevasses in the levees, so that next year’s crops may be safe. This may be done by the nation as an emergency service to a community that has suffered a calamity. It will cost millions, and for a year or more will require most of the available equipment and trained men.

Second, provide the necessary organization and facilities and begin collecting the facts on which an enduring policy may be based.

Third, find out, as soon as possible, what further work can wisely be done in the immediate future.

Fourth, make an economic survey to determine whether it is wise to protect the entire flooded area at the present time, and what should, from an economic standpoint, be the sequence of protective work.

Fifth, prepare a comprehensive flood-control code, to be passed in substance by the states affected, as a condition to receiving federal aid. Such a code should provide for the return of large tracts to the government if the owners will not pay the whole cost of reclamation, and would provide for the operation of the programme and for interstate coöperation. Where two or more states are bound together by common problems, to have interstate flood-control districts organized in the federal courts rather than in state courts, as at present, would solve many a knotty question.

Sixth, establish a uniform flood-control policy providing for a specified proportion of government assistance on all such projects.

Seventh, create a national flood-control commission, independent of present government engineering organizations, to which would be assigned the administration of this policy.

Eighth, proceed with nationally assisted flood-control work thereafter only in accordance with the terms of that policy, and under the general supervision of that commission.