* Corps may open Morganza spillway over weekend
* Floodwater diversion threatens crops, rural population
By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - U.S. authorities may soon
open a key spillway to relieve the swollen Mississippi River
to avoid flooding Louisiana's two largest cities but
potentially swamping thousands of homes and acres of crops.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Friday it may open
the Morganza Spillway, which would divert high water to homes,
farms, a wildlife refuge and a small oil refinery in the
Atchafalaya River basin, to avoid flooding more densely
populated Baton Rouge, the state capital, and New Orleans.
It would be the first time the spillway, located about 45
miles northwest of Baton Rouge, has been opened in
nearly 40 years.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on Friday told residents in
the affected areas to start leaving their homes and said the
state has plans with the American Red Cross to provide shelters
"It's extremely likely the spillway will be opened tomorrow
and no later than Sunday," Jindal said at a news conference
after he met with Corps officials.
Flooding could reach 20 feet in the Atchafalaya
About 2,500 people live inside the floodway, and another
22,500 people and 11,000 buildings would be affected by
backwater flooding when the Morganza is opened. Backwater
flooding is water pushed back into streams and tributaries that
cannot flow as normal into what will be an overwhelmed
Some 18,000 acres of cropland could be
"We always felt like there may come a day that it may
happen," said Martin Frey, a farmer in Morganza, the site of
Frey farms 1,600 acres inside the spillway,
including 450 acres of rice that had just begun
to grow. Anticipating the high water, he pulled irrigation
wells and motors.
"Now I have a crop sitting out there ready to die because
we have no rain and can't pump water. That's about as
disheartening as knowing that all of that's going to be under
15 or 20 feet of water soon," Frey said.
The Corps expects the Atchafalaya basin to flood within 10
to 14 days of opening the Morganza. Alon USA Energy on Friday
continued building a second levee to shore up existing levees
around its 80,000 barrels-per-day refinery in Krotz Springs,
Louisiana, which could face supply disruptions or have to shut
down amid flooding after the spillway opens.
Thousands of residents in towns along the Mississippi River
from Illinois to Mississippi have been evacuated in recent
weeks after the river overflowed its banks, fed by heavy spring
rains and large snow melt from a stormy winter.
The flow of water at the Red River Landing, about 63 miles
northwest of Baton Rouge, was expected to reach 1.5
million cubic feet per second over the
weekend, which is the minimum needed to open the spillway, the
Corps said in a statement.
As of Friday morning, the flow of water at the Red River
Landing was 1.45 million cubic feet per second, according to
The Corps said it anticipated opening the spillway to
divert up to 150,000 cubic feet per second
at peak flow. When fully opened, the spillway can allow 600,000
cubic feet of water per second.
Earlier this week, the Corps issued maps showing that New
Orleans, Baton Rouge and other cities along the Mississippi
would be inundated if the Morganza was not opened.
Jindal, a Republican, and New Orleans Mayor Mich Landrieu,
a Democrat, have both said failure to open the Morganza could
lead to flooding in New Orleans.
In addition to threatening densely populated areas, lower
Mississippi flooding could force shutdowns of as many as eight
refineries and at least one nuclear power plant alongside the
The refineries make up about 12 percent of the nation's
capacity for making gasoline and other fuels.
(Additional reporting by Erwin Seba and Kristen Hays in
Houston; Editing by Eric Beech)
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