In the beginning, before the federal government’s engineers decided to improve things, the Little Tallahatchie River flowed freely and naturally through parts of Union, Lafayette and Marshall counties on its way into the Mississippi Delta.
That flow stopped more than 50 years ago, but it may, to the delight of many people, start again within in a few years.
The engineers improved the river by straightening out its kinks and curves and bends in a much broader scheme of flood control related to Sardis Lake. Sardis is one of four large flood-control reservoirs in northern Mississippi controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lakes were built about 55 years ago, so a whole generation of Mississippians has grown up without seeing the Little Tallahatchie in its natural state.
The straightening of the Little Tallahatchie is called channelization, and it’s designed to help water flow more freely and quickly from Point A to Point B. The Little Tallhatchie flood channel eliminated 23 miles of the river and funnels water directly, quickly into Sardis. However, the elimination of curves and bends always has been controversial because some people believe it ultimately does more harm than good.
Tuesday night in Oxford the government agencies principally involved with the Little Tallahatchie River agreed that it needs to be returned to its natural state. The straight flood channel won’t be filled in, and flood control benefits won’t be eliminated. But the old twisting and turning river would again have enough water flow to make it worthy of its name if all plans fall into place.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service and the Mississippi Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Parks all agree that diverting more water into the old river is a good idea. The original river again would have flow all the time. It would be navigable from Etta in Union County to Abbeville in Lafayette County. It would have more species of game fish like crappie, bream and bass.
The optimism of Tuesday night’s meeting rose from a wellspring of local and regional support for the Little Tallahatchie. People who remember and people who want to remember a free-flowing river have planned and persuaded for years. It appears that their efforts will pay off.
The Corps of Engineers has money for the studies necessary to decide how best to make the Little Tallahatchie a real river again. The exact costs have’t been calculated, but that will be public information. A spokesman for the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Parks said Wednesday he believes the studies and planning will be completed within two years, with work beginning and ending soon after that.
No river in Mississippi has been restored to its natural state after changes by the Corps of Engineers. It would be a memorable benchmark in government decision-making and for our natural habitat if the Little Tallahatchie could be the first. After Tuesday night’s meeting, that looks like a good possibility.