“As the tremors faded, Logan glanced north toward a line of levees the Corps of Engineers had erected long ago, to reassure a trusting public that all eventualities were predictable, controllable, and would be forever, amen. In the distance, a new sound could be heard, not as deep or grating as the quakes, but just as frightening. It felt like vast herds of wild beasts on the rampage.
That was when Logan knew with utter certainty the Corps had been wrong… that all things must come to an end. The concrete prison, forged by man to control a mighty river, had finally cracked. And a crack was all the prisoner needed.
The father of waters was free at last. Long delayed, the Mississippi was coming to Atchafalaya.”
— from EARTH, by David Brin (1989) (Page 619 of the US paperback edition, page 550 of the hardcover)
We’re witnessing record flooding of the Mississippi River, forcing thousands of people to evacuate. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently opened the Morganza spillway for the first time in nearly four decades — to relieve pressure on the levees, and protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from severe flooding (which could have rivalled Hurricane Katrina in its severity). The water will now flow into the Atchafalaya basin, and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.
Through engineering, we have diverted the powerful Mississippi River — but is it time to listen to Nature, and allow her to choose her own path? Here’s an article I wrote in 2005 when terrible hurricanes and flooding inundated New Orleans. It’s particularly relevant today:
In EARTH, I describe how desperately the Mississippi wants to change its course. Every year, it strains harder against the Army Corps of Engineers’ magnificent — but someday doomed — Atchafalaya Control Dam. This structure is a key element in that battle — going back two hundred years — to keep the Great River constrained to a single, narrow, navigable channel.
Look at a map and ponder. Anyone who lives in that region knows that the river “wants” to change course… as natural rivers always do… heading down a steeper, shorter path to the Gulf of Mexico. A path down the Atchafalaya Valley. Every year, strains on the Control Structure increase, as do flood premiums for people living along the Atchafalaya. Everyone know what will happen, “sooner or later.”
Is it possible that NOW may be the right time to let the river go?
There have always been benefits and drawbacks to this idea, with the political balance invariably choosing to leave things as they were… spending hundreds of millions to keep forcing Ol’ Miss down its old channel, which continues silting and rising. (Today, the river’s BOTTOM now lies above the second floor of some NoLa buildings. Shall we keep fighting nature till a syrup-sluggish flow passes the THIRD floor? Fourth? Any higher and the river will flow backwards!)
Obstinacy has had huge, expensive and destructive effects — artificially lengthening the official channel (now an extended finger aimed at Cuba), hampering shipping, robbing the barrier islands and swamps of silt, until Louisiana’s delta is almost gone… the old natural hurricane barrier that might have saved New Orleans from Katrina.
Benefits of opening the gates: a new, straight and fast channel to the Gulf — especially if it were prepared and then water-scoured — would require little in the way of ongoing dredging or levees. Carried swiftly to the Gulf, silt would spread wide, rebuilding wetlands and islands, recreating the natural storm barriers.
After an adjustment period, river commerce should be more efficient. And the endeavor may partly be paid off by nongovernmental money, attracted to an entirely new rivermouth economic zone. (Providing jobs preferentially for the displaced?)
An added bonus. This is one proposed mega-engineering project that environmentalists may not block. While some might resist out of a reflex to oppose any ambitious alteration of nature, others will see it as restoring a long-lost balance and offer enthusiastic backing. Might this even set a new tone for the years that follow? One of cooperation between those with a keen eye for spotting problems… and those with bold proposals to solve them?
Drawbacks: This plan would require finally buying out a chain of Atchafalaya farms — and some villages — that have long known the river would someday come a-calling. Some will kick and scream while others welcome getting the waiting over with, calmly, deliberately. Some may even relish new riverfront views.
But let’s face it, the real opposition to releasing the Imprisoned Mississippi always came from NoLa itself, which took pride and identity from being America’s greatest River City. Only now the Big Easy may be ready, at last, to accept a different role.
Please, I am not offering this suggestion in order to kick New Orleans while it’s down. Indeed, this may be the best and only way to rebuild all of this great town… and more. For example, if the Mississippi moves away, NoLa will remain a GULF city. With Pontchartrain right next door, its port could stay valuable, though much traffic would be diverted to trans-shipment facilities at the new Atchafalaya outlet. In any event, this would cut in half the number of dikes that New New Orleans has to maintain. That savings, alone, might pay for the diversion. (Actually, it may cut the number by more than 2/3.)
And picture this: Today’s riverbed would then become an amazing raised plateau, winding through town. Envision it supporting a rail corridor, to replace some essential portion of traffic from the transplaced river. Or, better yet, imagine a sinuous path of view-rich housing for many of the displaced, so high that even a future break in the Ponchartrain dikes would never touch them. And the sogginess that rots every beam and timber of New Orleans today? Presumably that would decline, as well.
(Certainly on the west and south sides of the old riverbed, this solution would be permanent. A drier life, free of mildew. Only then the suburbs will be physically linked to Old NoLa… perhaps something they won’t like, given the unneighborly behavior that some displayed during this crisis.)
Indeed, this may be the one way to ensure that even old neighborhoods can be rebuilt, without the nation worrying that it’s all for nothing.
With a year’s warning, a new Achafalaya path for the Mississippi could be prepared (the one it wants to take and will take, sooner or later). If done carefully, the new river will be healthier, better for commerce, and the whole region ecologically improved. What’s more, it’s probably much cheaper than any other plan, as well. Heck, the river itself should do most of the work.
The alternative? Spend billions restoring and then maintaining an impossible situation… keep chaining up an adamant river that pushes harder every year against the artificial bonds that enslave it to our shortsighted will… until the Dam eventually gives way anyway, releasing the Father of Waters to come sweeping down upon unprepared farms and villages… leaving New Orleans just as high and dry.