Spillway ready – just in case

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 6, 1998

By Leonard Gray / L’Observateur / May 6, 1998

NORCO – Lazily, the 5-foot alligator paddled through the murky water, his eyes peering over the wind-whipped ripples as he neared the soft-shelled turtle. The wary turtle scampered away before the gator could reach him.The alligator sees the small pond just inside the Bonnet Carre Spillway gates only as good hunting grounds.

“He’s gotten pretty fat here,” said Kirt Jacob, chief engineer for the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers station at the spillway.

Jacob, however, is not so complacent.

It’s that time of year again, with rising levels in the Mississippi River, when the Corps keeps a wary eye on the gauges. Last year, the gauge atNorco reached 21.9 feet when it was opened fully, from March 17 to April18.

Bonnet Carre kept river water flows at New Orleans from exceeding 1.3million cubic feet per second, relieving pressure on area levees and lowering river stages.

Water has been seeping through the timber pins of the spillway structure since late January. Current river stages are between 17 and 18 feet atNorco.

“The National Weather Center predicts it will get a little high,” Jacob noted. “After May passes, you can make a good judgment call, but it’shard.”Regardless, the spillway is ready to serve.

“It’s always ready to go anyway,” Jacob said, recalling it takes 38 hours to open the spillway under normal conditions. However, in an emergencysituation such as a levee break, the pins can be “blown out” in five hours with a quick-release safety latch.

The high water of 1997 could have gone down in Louisiana history as one of the state’s most devastating floods, rivaling the 1921 flood which prompted the spillway’s construction.

Instead, with the spillway’s opening, up to $26.5 billion in flood damageswere averted, according to Corps estimates.

The highest water of this year is anticipated for May 8 with a crest of 16.0 feet at New Orleans. That reading, however, is not enough to warrantopening the spillway. The reading at New Orleans last year was 16.8 whenit was opened.

The 1997 opening diverted 250,000 cubic feet per second into Lake Pontchartrain. Environmental effects, according to Corps, included a poorbrown shrimp season and a massive algae bloom which hurt recreational activities. On the other hand, crab catches were significantly up.So, it seems the alligator will continue to enjoy his turtle meals, spiced with the occasional duck, without being disturbed by a massive opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, at least for this year.

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