There is no force more powerful than gravity at work on the Mississippi River. But for over a half century, George C. Grugett has been a close second. In fact, during the record-breaking flood of 2011, one could say Grugett and colleagues proved they could defy gravity—at least temporarily—as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers redirected massive floodwaters for the benefit of millions of people.
In Memphis, the Corps recently honored the lifelong efforts of Grugett by christening a new towboat the Motor Vessel George C. Grugett.
Grugett flew 47 missions as an Army Air Corps bomber pilot during World War II and later honed his understanding of the civil works mission of the Army as a 35-year employee of the Corps. There he rose to oversee multi-million dollar projects, mostly related to flood control and navigation along the Lower Mississippi River.
After retiring from the Corps, he served another 30 years as vice president of the influential Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association, where he was a tireless advocate of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, or MR&T. This $13 billion program grew out of the Flood Control Act of 1928—passed in response to the “Great Flood” of 1927 – and brought forth a new “room for the river” approach that incorporated natural features such as wetlands and floodplains. That new approach made all the difference in the record flood of 2011 passing without calamity.
While civil works projects traditionally consisted of infrastructure like dams and levees, more holistic thinking in recent times suggest that natural features such as wetlands and floodplains also make up “infrastructure,” because they serve as solutions to flood management and can also help improve water quality and provide habitat for wildlife and places for outdoor recreation; and all that boosts our economy. In some cases these natural solutions can be more cost effective than constructed alternatives, too.
We need more leaders that understand these synergies and have Grugett’s visionary tenacity. What Grugett and the “greatest generation” accomplished far surpasses our progress on water resource issues today. Our national attention is lacking, and our water infrastructure increasingly erodes as a result. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives most of our water infrastructure poor grades, including a D-minus for our levees. Meanwhile the Corps has a $60 billion backlog of authorized projects. Our natural areas along lakes and rivers are not faring much better.
Endeavors like the MR&T required skillful plans and execution over decades to deliver intended benefits. We need to refocus our many piecemeal efforts today on more comprehensive approaches that blend infrastructure and the restoration of cost-effective natural solutions to wring out multiple socio-economic and environmental benefits from our rivers, lakes and groundwater.
The fate of our water resources and the socio-economic benefits that flow from them hang in the balance of smart investments. Ultimately our national economy and global competitiveness depends on getting this right—yes, the Mississippi River, Great Lakes and other great water bodies are that important.
Grugett faced gravity, but increasing demand for food and energy will require the next generation to face a complexity around water that rivals quantum physics. The Corps’ budget for operations and maintenance has been roughly the same for 30 years. Meanwhile other nations like China and Brazil with growing economies are investing in their future by investing in water resources. It’s time our investment in water reflects its true value and the benefits we have come to enjoy.
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