Evolution of Surface Water Quantity Issues in the Mississippi Delta

Author(s): Byrd, C.

Over the last ten to twenty years, most of the streams in the interior of the Mississippi Delta have lost most, if not all, of their base flow from the shallow aquifer that is used for irrigation and fish culture. There are several reasons for this situation, some of which date all the way back to the early 1900s and perhaps even as far back as the mid 1800s.

Shortly after Mississippi became the nation’s 20th state in 1817, settlers began coming to the Delta area to try to establish a new life for themselves and their families. They found vast swamps and thick, thick forests. Most of these first pioneers arrived between 1825 and 1827 and brought with them the means of making a living they had known all their lives—cotton farming. But before they could farm, they had to clear the land. Then once the land was cleared, drainage was a tremendous problem. As far back as the early 1900s, farmers banded together to form drainage districts. Within these drainage districts, they voluntarily taxed themselves so that drainage ditches could be dug to take excess water more quickly to the nearest Delta streams.

Approximately 9.2 million acres of forest in the Lower MS Valley had been removed. And even by the 1960’s, areas that were frequently flooded, but were mostly undisturbed, were converted from forests to fields as a result of federal agencies’ flood control projects. As virgin forests disappeared, farmland increased. For many, many years cotton was considered the King of all the crops grown in the Delta. In 1950 soybeans and rice began to be grown. Then in the early 1960s catfish farming developed as an important source of income.

With more land dedicated to crops other than cotton, especially rice and catfish, irrigation from groundwater became extremely important. The volume of water pumped from the shallow aquifer known as the Mississippi River valley alluvial aquifer, or MRVA, has increased significantly from approximately million gallons per day annually in 1954 to a current estimate of perhaps as much as 1.5 billion gallons of water per day.

Along with the increased usage of the MRVA, there has been a decrease in the water level in this aquifer. So much so that at least for the northern half of the Delta, the water level has fallen below the channel bottoms of the interior streams—thus causing baseflow from the aquifer to those streams to either be reduced significantly or to totally disappear.

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