When Was The Mississippi River Levee System Built

The Purpose of the Mississippi River Levee System

The Mississippi River channel is the lifeblood of the United States economic and social systems, draining 41 percent of the country’s land area and supplying 75 percent of its agricultural commodities. But it is also a destructive river, prone to violent flooding on both sides of its banks. To protect against this flooding, the Mississippi River Levee System was designed and built in the 19th century.

The levee system’s purpose is to act as an artificial floodplain, preventing the Mississippi waters from inundating the surrounding lands. By keeping the floodwaters away from fertile farmlands and major cities, the system has helped maintain the efficiency and productivity of the country’s economic and social systems.

When the Levee System Was Built

The levee system began in the late 19th century and was mostly completed by the early 20th century. Although it originally served to protect coastal towns and cities from flooding, the levees were quickly extended to protect large tracts of farmland stretched throughout the Mississippi Valley. By the 1930s, the levees had become the foundation of modern flooding protection for the entire region.

The Mississippi River Improvement Act of 1917 was largely responsible for the completion of the system. This act provided federal funding and resources to strengthen the existing levees and build new ones where needed. As a result, the levee system was able to protect the region’s valuable agricultural lands, especially in the years before the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

Modern Significance of the Levee System

Today, the levee system remains important to the American people. Although modern engineering techniques have enabled the creation of more sophisticated flood control measures, such as levees with different levels and combinations of floodwalls and pumps, the original system is still in use. The levees are maintained and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Its goal is to protect life and property from flooding and to ensure the safety of waterways.

The Mississippi River levee system also serves as a key component in the nation’s system of waterway transportation. The levees serve to keep navigable depths in the river and ensure the accuracy of river-level measurements. In addition, the system supports the navigation industry and controls canal depths that form part of the Mississippi navigation system. Finally, the levees help protect municipal water supplies from contamination due to floodwaters.

Environmental Impact

The Mississippi River levee system also has an environmental impact. It prevents the river’s natural flow, which affects water quality, animal habitats, and water resources along the floodplain. Additionally, the system reduces the area of wetlands, which can lead to an imbalance in the local ecology. As a result, if an unforeseen event were to occur and the levee system were to fail, the consequences could be severe.

The ecosystem damage caused by the construction of the levee system has been further exacerbated by the loss of floodplain topography due to artificial changes in the flow of the river. As a result, the destruction of habitats and loss of wildlife are significant risks. Additionally, the levee system impairs the natural flow of silt and sediment, which provide essential nutrients to the riverine ecosystem.


The Mississippi River levee system has served an important role in protecting America’s economic and social systems since its construction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although it has provided much-needed protection from floods, the system has also caused significant environmental impacts, due to its alteration of the natural flow of the Mississippi and the destruction of habitats. Therefore, the consequences of an unforeseen failure of the levee system could be severe.

Controlling Risk of Over Topping

The risk of over topping levees is a constant concern with the Mississippi River levee system. Four main actions are typically taken to prevent this from happening. Firstly, levees are raised and widened so that they are tall enough to contain the maximum flood heights. Secondly, levees are built with heavier construction, such as concrete and reinforced steel, which are able to bear higher levels of stress and strain. Thirdly, levees are strengthened through the use of armor layers. Finally, levees are monitored to observe water heights and any structural damage which could increase the risk of over topping.

The combination of these techniques has enabled the levee system to maintain its integrity, despite being tested multiple times over the past hundred years. Even though it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of an unforeseen over topping, the various measures taken have ensured that the levee system is better prepared to handle such a devastating event.

Reliance on Levee System

Reliance on the levee system itself has become a significant problem. Over time, many cities and communities have developed assuming that the system is indestructible and will always provide protection from flooding. Unfortunately, this assumption has led to poorly planned infrastructure, as well as inadequate attention to both flood zone regulations and warning systems. Consequently, if a levee were to fail, potential losses of life and property could be much greater than expected.

This has necessitated the development of additional flood management plans that take into account the dangers of relying solely on the levee system. These plans include the creation of evacuation routes, the adoption of regulations that prevent construction in flood-prone areas, and the improvements of warning systems. Taking these measures can help to reduce the impact of a levee failure and the resulting destruction.

The Challenges of Maintenance

Maintaining the levee system is an expensive and time-consuming task. Due to its advanced age, many of the levees require extensive repairs and rehabilitation in order to remain effective. Additionally, the levees must be monitored to ensure they remain in good condition and are not threatened by any potential changes to the Mississippi River waters. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees the levee system at a federal level, and states and local entities are responsible for the maintenance of individual levees.

Although the federal government provides some funding for the upkeep of the system, much of the financial burden falls on municipalities and landowners. This can be particularly taxing, as projects to repair and strengthen levees can be expensive and lengthy. As a result, it is essential that a long-term strategy is developed to ensure the continued maintenance of the Mississippi River levee system.

Reassessment of Flood Risk

Given the size, complexity and expense of maintaining the Mississippi River levee system, it is now necessary to reassess the risk of flooding and the impact of a levee failure. This reassessment must take in to account both the public health and safety of nearby populations as well as the socio-economic impacts of an over topping. In addition, it must be established which areas are most at risk and what measures can be taken to reduce these risks.

One potential measure could be to create a wetland buffer around the levee system. This buffer would absorb excess floodwater and reduce the risk of over topping. Additionally, structures such as bridges and tunnels could be considered as a way of allowing the river to expand during times of high water flow, while also providing a safe transport access.

Environmental Protection Strategies

While the maintenance of the levee system is vital to the continued protection of life and property, it is also important to consider how best to protect the environment. One option is to introduce new technologies to the levees that can help to reduce the negative impacts of the system such as siltation, erosion and destruction of habitats. Additionally, the use of bio-engineering methods can also help to improve water quality and reduce the pressure on vulnerable floodplain areas.

Lastly, conservation efforts such as the purchase and protection of vulnerable wetlands, the removal of obstructions from the river, and replanting of native vegetation can help to reduce the impact of the levee system and restore the river’s ecological balance. Through these efforts, the Mississippi River levee system could continue to serve its important purpose while being better managed and better protected.

Raymond Strasser is a passion-driven writer and researcher, dedicated to educating readers on the topic of world rivers. With a background in Geography and Environmental Studies, Raymond provides insightful pieces which explore the impact and importance that rivers have around the world.

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