As the Mississippi River moves toward the Gulf of Mexico, it divides its flood plain into a number of large basins, each bounded on one side by the bluff of the valley wall and on the other by the high ridges or natural levees of the river itself. The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta is such a basin. Before man's involvement, these basins along the river flooded when the river exceeded bank full relieving the channel of water it cound not carry.
The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta lies at the neck of a funnel at which point the Mississippi River drains 31 states and two provinces of Canada. The drainage area served covers an area extending from New York to Montana. Forty one percent of the United States drains past Vicksburg at the south end of the Delta.
Almost 200 years of effort have gone into relieving the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta from periodic overflow flooding the Mississippi River to make the region safe for residents to develop industry, agriculture, and to build lives in thriving and growing cities.
The efforts to contain flooding from the Mississippi River and from interior streams has been and continues to be the responsibility of the region's elected levee boards. The Mississippi Levee District, governed by the Mississippi Board of Levee Commissioners, has maintained its efforts against the threat of flooding continuously since 1865.
The history of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta is inextricably intertwined with the fight for survival from periodic flooding.
By 1803 the first settlers were beginning to come into the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta and flood control was the first step toward land development. The first levees were constructed by settlers along the high banks of the river and were seldom over two to three feet high. Some of these original levees can still be seen along the east side of Bayou Road at Greenville.
In 1819, just two years after Mississippi was admitted to the Union, an act was approved by the state's General Assembly authorizing the erection of the first levee to prevent inundation and overflow of the river and a commission was set up to oversee this work.
The 1830 to 1845 period saw new lands being opened up for an expanding young country. Devastating floods during that period dramatized the need for improvements in flood control and in 1858 the Legislature created the 1858 Levee District to oversee work on a statewide levee system. The Civil War brought an abrupt end to the development of the levee system. Flooding on the Mississippi River and military operations caused widespread damage to the system.
Immediately after the Civil War, citizens in the lower Delta saw a need to reorganize and move ahead on levee work. In 1865, the Board of Levee Commissioners for Bolivar, Washington and Issaquena Counties was formed in Greenville and in 1877 the board was enlarged by the Legislature under the name of the Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners. It has maintained its headquarters in Greenville and has been widely recognized as one of the great levee organizations of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley.
Before Federal involvement in flood control efforts, this levee board developed a strong organization for flood fighting and levee building. Since 1865 it has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars by local taxes and selling bonds to help pay for levee construction and flood fighting.
Federal Involvement - Local Participation
For well over the first 100 years, all flood control efforts were paid for at first by the river front land owner, then the river front counties and then by funds raised by local levee boards.
In 1917 the Ransdell-Humphreys Act was passed. This was first Federal flood control act and was designed to relieve the Mississippi Valley of flooding problems by building higher and stronger levees and by placing revetments in the river to prevent caving banks from damaging the levee line. This act provided that the Federal government together with local levee districts were to share the cost of flood control.
The flood of 1927 resulted in the passage of the Jones-Reid Bill of 1928 which set in motion a great national project for improvement of the Mississippi River for flood control and navigation. The Act provided that the Federal government would help bear the cost of these projects as it was viewed that flood control was a national concern.
Right of way and levee maintenance were to be provided by the local levee districts. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was to carry out the work and the Mississippi River Commission was to become a strong advisor to the Corps.
Since 1927 the region has been protected from Mississippi River floods by the comprehensive river engineering works constructed by the Corps of Engineers. In the lower Delta, the Mississippi Levee District has continued to carry out its role of furnishing rights of way, maintaining the levee system, keeping up systematic inspection of the line, and, when necessary, organizing and leading high water flood fights.
The Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners
Today, the Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners for the Mississippi Levee District is composed of two members from each of the counties of Bolivar and Washington and one from each of the counties of Issaquena, Sharkey, and from that part of Humphreys County in the District.
This district has jurisdiction over the 163 mile mainline levee system stretching from Bolivar County to just north of Vicksburg, the 8 mile Greenville Harbor Dike around Lake Ferguson; the 13 mile Brunswick Extension Levee to Eagle Lake; and the 28 miles of Yazoo Backwater Levee which prevents high water on the Mississippi River from flooding the South Delta. The remaining 98 miles of Mainline Mississippi Levee located north of Bolivar County are under the jurisdiction of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District headquartered in Clarksdale.
In addition to jurisdiction over the Mainline Levee System, the Mississippi Levee District also is the sponsor for flood control projects on interior streams within its' district. The Big Sunflower and Tributaries Projects include some 360 miles of streams to include the Sunflower River, Bogue Phalia, and the Steele Bayou/Black Bayou systems. The District also is the sponsor for the construction of the Yazoo Backwater Pumping Plant. This plant is recognized as the last component in flood control for the Delta.
On the Mainline Levee System, the Mississippi Levee District cooperates with the Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi River Commission on all construction projects.
On flood control work on interior streams, the District has historically had strong cooperation not only with the Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi River Commission, but also all local governments, drainage districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Funding for the District's vital work is provided by ad valorem taxes on all property in the district, an acreage tax of five cents per acre, privilege taxes on utilities, interest on investments, cattle gap maintenance fees, and other rents and leases.
The Threat of Flooding
To many, the great days of Mississippi River overflow and month-long high water fighting are gone forever. This is not an accurate picture of reality. The River remains a formidable force throughout the Valley. Since the flood of 1927, there have been major floods causing loss of life and extensive property damage in the millions of dollars in 1937, 1945, 1950, 1973, 1975, 1979, 1982-83, 1989-91and 1993-98.
The 1973 flood in the Mississippi Valley must be considered as one of the greatest in the history of the lower valley. The flood inundated 17 million acres throughout the valley. In the Mississippi Levee District, the flooding was disastrous to both the region's residents and to wildlife populations. In the Delta, this flood caused almost $170 million in damages in 1973 dollars.
In the south Delta, over 600,000 acres were inundated. Hunting club members and game wardens in that area related scenes of piles of dead and dying deer after the floodwaters began to recede. Many more were slaughtered by poachers. Hunting club harvest records after the flood reflect that it took years for deer populations to recover. All terrestrial wildlife was decimated.
The 1973 flood was the first test of completed works in 23 years. This test proved that the Mississippi River improvements (particularly the cut-offs) was not functioning as efficiently as predicted. The result was that the Project Design Flood on the river would result in higher stages particularly from Greenville south. Sixty nine miles of Mainline Levee in our district require to be raised to safely pass this flood. The levee near Mayersville was found to require a maximum raise of 8 feet.