May 23, 2011

Opening The Floodgates: Water & Controversy. ~ Allison Barocas

Photo: NY Post

Outpouring of Water and Controversy.

On Saturday, May 14, for the first time in nearly four decades, the Army Corps opened the first of several floodgates of the Morganza Spillway on the Mississippi River in Louisiana.

The intention was to divert mass amounts of water away from larger, more densely populated industrial areas in Louisiana, including the oil refineries and chemical plants in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Photo: Southeast Missourian

Shifting the water away from these cities is expected to take stress off of the levees. Hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the belief is that the region would not be able to recover from another disastrous event.

On Sunday, a total of four floodgates were opened. By Thursday, May 19, the Army Corps opened the seventeenth.

Perhaps not intentional, but certainly foreseen, Business Insider reports that the opening of the gates could affect nearly 25,000 people, as well as more than 10,000 structures and many acres of farmland in Louisiana.

Residents were evacuated as a reported 12 million gallons of water per second poured out of the gates covering hundreds of acres of dry land. These entire communities and small businesses will likely be gone.

As the reports show, individuals affected by the opening of the floodgates are in the Cajun country. The water will flow into Atchafalaya Basin, the largest swamp in the United States, then onto Morgan City, a heart of seafood and oil industry, and finally, into the Gulf of Mexico. Areas across the region will be affected.

The videos, photographs and interviews with residents are astounding and heartbreaking.  In nearly every instance, residents remain hopeful. They plan to return to their homes after the water has subsided. But who knows the extent of the damage? The spillway is expected to be open for weeks. Once the water floods the area, water level will remain dangerously high.

Many do not want to leave. Some even refuse to leave. And who can blame them? Their families, friends, neighbors and livelihoods are in these cities. Residents are building makeshift levees and sandbags to protect their homes as well as covering windows and doors. Army Corps officials told residents, “Prepare for the worst. It’s coming”.

Photo: Daily News Sentinel

I have tried to wrap my mind around the issue in a clear, objective and educated way.  As a student majoring in environmental studies I have been trained to think in a multidisciplinary fashion from all view-points—environmental, sociological, political and economical.  But this has only led me to further ambiguity.

I am torn between the economics of the problem, taking a benefit-cost approach, and the strong ethical dilemmas that exist within this issue.

Our political system functions, regulates and mitigates under a utilitarian ethical framework. Often, decisions are made with the intention minimizing harm and maximizing the greater good.

But we must always ask, do the ends justify the means?

With a utilitarian ethical approach, the greater good often sacrifices the rights of individuals. Such as, the rights of those individuals in Louisiana and Mississippi who are being evacuated from their homes and losing their land to nearly thirty feet of water.

And further, it is reported that the government is not providing aid to any communities affected but the opening of the floodgates.

My question is, to what extent do we divert problems from one area, and place burden on another—specifically, to an area of low-income families and hardworking farmers? This is a controversial decision and I certainly do not have an answer to my question.

But, it is clear to me, and should be to most others, that the government sacrificed the well-being of small towns, businesses and farmland for Louisiana and America’s greater good—protecting New Orleans and protecting our oil. Whether or not this is fair is a tough call.


Allison Barocas is an undergraduate Senior at the University of Colorado at Boulder, majoring in environmental studies and currently interning with elephant journal. Allison was born and raised on Long Island, New York and completed high school in Knoxville, Tennessee. She loves to spend her free time outdoors, going to concerts, running around Denver and traveling.

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