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In Historic Flooding On Mississippi River, A Missed Opportunity To Rebuild Louisiana


First Posted: 06/09/11 09:54 AM ET Updated: 08/09/11 06:12 AM ET

PLAQUEMINES PARISH, La. -- For decades, a mixture of industrial development and erosion has carved away at southern Louisiana, eliminating nearly 2,000 square miles of land and making the area increasingly vulnerable to storms that sweep in from the Gulf of Mexico.

Every day the Mississippi River delivers the raw materials required to replenish this lost territory: mud and sand that drop at the mouth of the waterway and would amass there, were nature allowed to run its course.

But nature has proven no match for the century-long federal governance of the Mississippi as a vital marine highway: Five enormous ships operated by the federal government dredge the sediment collecting at the mouth of the river daily, then carry much of it into open waters offshore and dump it there, sending it into oblivion.

This year’s historic flooding along the Mississippi River resonated as a threat to low-lying communities, sending families scrambling to preserve homes and property. But it was also a missed opportunity on an epic scale, say conservationists: The heavy rains that swelled the Mississippi loaded it with a massive supply of natural building materials that could have buttressed the Gulf Coast land. Instead, levees built to tame the river directed this sediment down to the mouth, where the federal ships are hauling it away.

Mouse over to see before and after photos of the disappearance of Louisiana's coast
Photos courtesy of USGS National Wetlands Research Center

“It’s basically crazy to let that sediment flow out into the open Gulf of Mexico, when you could be using it to build more Louisiana,” says Chris Paola, a geology professor at the University of Minnesota who is part of a team of researchers studying the Mississippi River and the collapse of its delta. “Why would you throw away real estate? If that real estate were under a shopping mall in New Jersey, nobody would tolerate just seeing it wasted. But that’s what we’re doing here.”

These clashing notions about the appropriate response to the flood rest on the surface of a long-entrenched battle over the core identity of the Mississippi, as communities and industries with divergent interests make competing claims on the river’s natural bounty.

Since the late 1800s, the government has managed the Mississippi as a superhighway for marine commerce, building levees that have maintained the channel to transport goods worldwide while providing flood protection for those living along its banks. But this intervention has exacted a steep cost: The levees have prevented the river’s mud from spilling over the banks and building up land in southern Louisiana, as it did for eons before.

As a result, the Gulf of Mexico has been able to slowly conquer the once-vibrant wetlands and marshes of southern Louisiana, creeping steadily northward and eroding away at the natural land barriers that have protected populated cities such as New Orleans from hurricanes.

Oil companies and the government have also cut up the coastline with additional canals and navigation channels, which have acted as a conduit for marsh-killing salt water.

“The flooding of Hurricane Katrina was in no small measure a consequence of allowing that wetland system to deteriorate,” said Paul Kemp, a former coastal sciences professor at Louisiana State University who is now a vice president at the National Audubon Society. “This system is not about to collapse; it’s collapsing.”

Experts dismiss the idea that the management of the Mississippi is a zero-sum game; a choice between protecting shipping and rebuilding coastal lands. With proper planning, both goals can be pursued at once, they say. But in a perverse consequence of federal regulations, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is required to choose the cheapest way to dispose of the mud that now collects at the mouth of the river, which has meant dumping it offshore.

In so doing, the federal government is squandering the free materials offered by nature to protect coastal Louisiana and New Orleans from a steady descent into the sea.

Carried from as far away as Montana, Minnesota and New York, sediment flowing down the Mississippi River has supplemented the land of what is now the southern United States for more than a million years.

Major floods have acted as crucial infusions of fresh material, sending mud and fresh water cascading over the river’s banks. But the re-engineering of the river over the last century has largely put a stop to that function.

The past decisions made perfect economic sense at the time: Ships needed easy passage to the nation’s interior; farmers wanted certainty that their crops would survive. But as the environmental costs have become clearer, conservation groups, scientists and government officials in Louisiana have pointed out the pitfalls of a management scheme that was conceived in a much different time.

The loss of the estuary environment, where fresh and salt water intermingle, threatens the long-term survival of one of the world’s most productive fisheries. Entire cities, major oil refineries and some of the busiest American ports now lack historical natural barriers from hurricanes.

Satellite images show a division of two worlds: the untapped natural resource of the river and its mud pulsing directly through the disappearing region of wetlands and pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.

For years, state and local leaders and national environmental groups have pushed for a different approach to managing the river’s valuable sediment -- embracing the power of natural forces instead of fighting them. The goal is to mimic past major flooding events by allowing sediment and fresh water to be strategically redirected into the adjacent marshes farther upstream through engineered breaks in the levees, or through pipelines that would funnel mud from the river into wetlands.

Dozens of Mississippi River delta restoration projects have been drawn up over the years by various federal agencies, but so far they are mostly theoretical designs sitting on shelves as the state has struggled to secure federal funding.

The costs have been a major sticking point. The price tag for one of the largest proposed sediment diversion projects, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, is upwards of half a billion dollars. And design problems with past projects have illustrated the engineering challenges entailed in meddling with nature.

But the costs of doing nothing different and continually plow piles of mud at the mouth of the river are expected to escalate as well. During the past five years, the Army Corps of Engineers has spent more than $100 million each year to keep the lower river open by dredging. The belief is that by eventually redirecting sediment from the river to adjacent marsh environments, the government could avoid some the mounting expenses of clearing the mouth of the river while also preserving crucial land barriers.

Conservationists assert that the status quo only seems like the lowest priced option because of the nature of the accounting: The federal government is not counting the costs absorbed by coastal communities who must live with greater vulnerability to hurricanes. The calculation does not reflect the impact to valuable fisheries -- and the people who rely on them for their livelihoods.

“This is a very rich place that we’ve been harvesting and harvesting for decades,” said Foster Creppel, who runs the Woodland Plantation, a historic inn and eco-tourism destination in Plaquemines. “People think it’ll never go away, that it’ll keep giving. But it won’t. We’re going to take from it until we kill it.”

MASSIVE WETLANDS

The southern stretches of the Mississippi River in Louisiana are a remote and wild region of marshlands, bays and lakes that stretch more than 100 miles south of New Orleans before giving way to the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a vast landscape that totals a third of all coastal wetlands in the United States. It’s home to a quarter of the seafood catch in the lower 48 states and is the winter habitat for 70 percent of migratory birds that fly across the central United States.

It is also a major industrial hub: 20 percent of the nation’s waterborne commerce is handled at Louisiana ports along the Mississippi River; the state has 20 percent of the nation’s petroleum refining capacity; and including offshore wells, it is the number one producer of oil in the country.

The problem is that these two basic functions –- commercial center and ecological wonderland –- have been in direct conflict for decades when it came to the question of dealing with the river. In large part, the national commercial interests of navigation and oil have trumped concerns about effects on the surrounding environment, leaving a system that funneled sediment all the way to the Gulf.

The abundant mix of natural resources along the lower Mississippi River -- and the human desire to extract them -- prompted a massive human intervention aimed at harnessing the river’s power.

Floods destroyed farmlands and homes. So settlers looked to prevent them, building dikes and levees to protect investments from being inundated.

Mouse over to see additional land loss in Louisiana

“The water resources management of the United States was built to maximize flood storage, to maximize hydropower, and to quicken the exit of floods as fast as they could,” said Phil Turnipseed, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wetlands Research Center. “We built our infrastructure for that. But in the last 30 years, we’ve got a new science that has come along that is really telling us that ecosystems are incredibly valuable to the continent and the population in so many different ways.”

A century ago, the landscape of coastal Louisiana was much different than today. A casual look at the names of geographical features and towns hints at what has been lost over time. An enormous open bay is still called “Little Lake”; “Golden Meadow,” now a coastal town almost completely surrounded by water, once boasted vast fields of crops and flowers.

But even dating back to the turn of the 20th century, when there was a much more robust coastal environment, observers who followed the construction of levees along the lower Mississippi River were already aware of the consequences for the environment.

A December 1897 edition of National Geographic noted the “great benefit to the following two and three generations” from building levees for flood control along the river, but also predicted “disadvantages to future generations” from the eventual disappearance of land.

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