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OPINION | REX NELSON: King of the Delta

by Rex Nelson | September 28, 2022 at 4:05 a.m.


Sam Epstein Angel of Lake Village, who died last month at age 83, was a Delta legend. Angel was born in January 1939 at a time when Jewish families were prominent in Delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi.

Angel was a member of the Hebrew Union Congregation, which has a beautiful synagogue in downtown Greenville, Miss. He was a planter (at some point you own enough land that you cease to be called a farmer and begin being referred to as a planter in this region) who headed Epstein Land Co. and Epstein Gin Co. He served as president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association while also serving on levee boards and bank boards.

In 2007, the Angel family donated Lakeport, the only antebellum plantation home remaining adjacent to the Mississippi River on the Arkansas side, to Arkansas State University. ASU restored the home, which is open to the public. If you want to understand life in the Delta, Lakeport is one of the places you must visit.

Angel will be most remembered for his four decades of service as a civilian member of the powerful Mississippi River Commission. He was appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents alike, serving as a strong voice for those who farm both sides of the lower Mississippi River. That position made him king of the Delta.

To understand how integral the Mississippi River Commission is to Delta life, one must understand its history. The first European explorers in the region were told by Native Americans to expect the Mississippi River to flood every 14 years. Early planters had to rely on their own efforts to build and maintain levees. As cotton enriched them, those planters became influential with Congress.

According to a PBS history of the commission: "In 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission to oversee federal funds for flood control. The commission was a response to the long-standing dispute between James Buchanan Eads, a civilian engineer on the Mississippi River, and Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, over how best to control the river.

"Congress authorized the Corps to participate in levee building on the Mississippi if matters of navigation were involved. Although the commission was supposed to combine the ideas of civilian and military engineers, in practice it was controlled entirely by the Corps. Up until the 1830s, the only place to receive training in engineering was at West Point, and only the best cadets were tapped to join the Corps."

As well-trained civilian engineers came on the scene later in the 1800s, they clashed with Army engineers on how best to control the river. In 1885, the commission adopted what was known as a levees-only policy.

According to PBS: "This policy was based on the theory that by containing the river with levees, the force of the high water would scour out the floor of the river, deepening the channel sufficiently to carry any water straight out to the sea. The use of man-made reservoirs, outlets and cutoffs for runoff was rejected time and time again. For the next 40 years, the commission stuck to this policy, not only refusing to build man-made outlets but also actively sealing up the river from many of its natural outlets.

"The Army engineers working on the levees were soldiers, not scientists, and the levees-only policy remained uncontested within the Corps. In reality, levees caused the river to rise, requiring higher and higher levees to contain its waters. It was a vicious cycle: levees built in 1850 to a height of seven feet had to be raised to as much as 38 feet. With each passing year, as the levees grew taller and stronger, so did the force and volume of the river."

A Corps history of the commission notes: "The 1887 Rivers and Harbors Act forced the MRC to abandon revetment as a bank stabilization method just when technical advancements were finally providing effective bank protection. Continuing constitutional concerns with regard to the federalization of flood control also stagnated development of a meaningful flood-control program by leading to legislation that restricted implementation of MRC plans.

"From 1881-92, federal law prohibited the MRC from expending funds to build or repair levees for the sole purpose of protecting property from overflow. Levees were to be constructed as aids to navigation. When restrictions were finally lifted, the MRC settled into the position that an adequate levee system, void of costly adjuncts, could protect the Mississippi Valley from inundation."

The Great Flood of 1927 changed all of that.

Years before in "Life on the Mississippi," Mark Twain wrote: "Ten thousand river commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here or Go there, and make it obey."

The Flood Control Act of 1917 facilitated final implementation of the levees-only policy. After the flood, there was a reappraisal of the Corps' levee policy. Popular support increased for a comprehensive river improvement plan, and the Flood Control Act of 1928 was passed.

During the decades that Angel served, the commission oversaw what's known as the Mississippi River and Tributaries project. Starting in 1928, more than $15 billion has been spent on the MR&T project. The commission estimates that the return on investment has been more than $600 billion, including savings on transportation costs and flood damages.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


Print Headline: King of the Delta

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