Sunday, May 15, 2011

Diverting the Mississippi

Some years ago, I read John McPhee's book, The Control of Nature, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.  Part of that book discussed the efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, over the last 80 years or so, to control the Mississippi River and keep it flowing through New Orleans and Baton Rouge.  McPhee's theory, in this book, was that the Mississippi has changed its course many times over the centuries, and that if it were not for the levees and dams built by the Corps, it would have changed its course in the early to middle twentieth century to flow down the Atchafalaya Basin, essentially stranding the existing ports.  It was a fascinating book and it's a tribute to the power of the descriptions that I wrote all that from memory even though I probably read the book 10 years ago.  He also wrote a separate piece, Atchafalaya, in 1987, which I suspect was the basis of that section of The Control of Nature.

And here we are in 2011, and the Mississippi River has reached the highest flood levels seen in a century, and the Corps has opened the Morganza Spillway (the second time in history; it was opened once in 1973), the gateway to the Atchafalaya Basin:

Morganza Spillway has nine of 125 bays open

This will flood 3,000 square miles of western Louisiana, and displace an estimated 25,000 people.  We're talking about water 25 feet deep here.

We're really talking about allowing the Mississippi to take that changed course which McPhee argued it has been trying to get to for 50 years or more.  A Google search of the terms "McPhee" and "Mississippi" shows that he's been pretty vocal on the subject recently.  I haven't read any of his comments.  I wonder, though, if he and I are wondering the same thing:

Once you let the Mississippi River make the course change that it's been trying to make for decades - how are you going to get it back?  It isn't exactly like turning off a faucet.  Is the Corps drowning the Atchafalaya Basin permanently?  Will New Orleans now be high and dry?  We'll find out.

1 comment:

  1. John McPhee has been as interested in hydrology over the years as he has been in geology. If you want another example, read the Floyd Dominy section of Encounters With the Archdruid.

    As a boy, I read Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, which details his years as a riverboat pilot. People along the river would cut channels across horseshoe bends to divert the course for human purposes. The river itself would occasionally do that all by itself.

    We've been engineering the Mississippi Delta for generations, to the detriment of the ecosystem. And the petroleum companies have been busy too. I love New Orleans, but how much longer can we hold nature at bay? The city only exists by virtue of giant pumps which perpetually remove water from the basin in which the place sits (below sea level).

    Things aren't stable on the earth. We live on a a hillside in a slide zone. The ground moves exactly one half inch west each year, year in, year out. Nothing can be done about it. The land is moved about 5 1/2 feet west since 1945, when the first surveys were done prior to development. You live with it, or move on.