We’ve caged the mighty Mississippi. The Mississippi has a 200-year delta cycle, slowly slithering from the Atchafalaya to her current mouth while depositing sediment at the various subdeltas in between. This process helps to counteract natural erosion by creating new fertile land. Naturally, the river will deposit sediment at a delta until it has reached a point of land creation at which it is no longer the path of least resistance, then will slowly diverge to the next distributary—beginning the process of land formation at the new mouth. Once the Mississippi moves to its new destination, the new land left behind begins the natural process of deterioration until the river makes it’s way back in a couple of centuries. This cycle did a wonderful job of distributing sediment where it was most needed and maintained a relatively stable coastline with flourishing marshlands.
However, the natural freedom of the river had dire consequences for its nearby human inhabitants. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, rendered over 700,000 people homeless. This tragic event caused the federal government to respond by contracting the Army Corps of Engineers to build dams and levee systems that constrained the Mississippi to its current location and consequently put an end to the river’s natural cycle. This caused a significant yet expected effect on the Louisiana coast: years before the intervention, Engineer E.L. Corthell (1897) wrote in a National Geographic article entitled “The Delta of the Mississippi River” in which he stated,
“No doubt the great benefit to the present and two or three following generations accruing from a complete system of absolutely protective levees, excluding the flood waters entirely from the great areas of the lower delta country, far outweighs the disadvantages to future generations from subsidence of the Gulf delta lands below the level of the sea and their gradual abandonment due to this cause.”
They understood the possible consequences but deemed that short-term safety should take precedence over long-term sustainability.
The current location of the river has sedimentation occurring mostly at the Mississippi River Delta Basin. This bird foot shaped basin is located on the edge of the continental shelf in deeper waters, making land deposition a challenge. The deeper the water, the more sediment it takes to create land. Because of this, land is being lost faster than it is being gained at the delta basin, which is a feature unique to the current positioning. This is a near total waste of valuable sediment caused by the forced stagnation of the Mississippi River’s natural cycle. In order to make use of this currently wasted sediment, plans to allow regulated pores to be opened up in the levees will be put in place. These pores will strategically allow sediment to be deposited where the Coastal Master Plan’s team of scientist and engineers have deemed most in need. This is a definite step in the right direction, however, will only utilize a small portion of the Mississippi’s power of land creation.
The only way to allow the Mississippi to truly do its job is to set her free—to an extent. We could not allow the Mississippi to be completely unleashed, as this would cause untold damage and displacement, but we may be able to let her out on parole. We could, over the course of the next 100 years or so, allow for a slow, controlled diversion to the Mississippi’s previous cyclic path. This may seem like a large task—because it is—but if we could muster the courage and funding, this could greatly help in developing a truly sustainable coastline. The current plan of action is filled with great, cost-efficient treatments, but will have to continue for as long as Louisiana is inhabited. In fact, there is a very high probability the cost of keeping the land loss at bay will continue to soar, eventually escalating to a point where mass relocation is the only option. Plans to use the Mississippi River itself, on the other hand, would take a large initial investment but would take the strain off of future generations. Once the locks and diversions needed would be constructed, we could alter the flow as needed to ensure maximum land deposition with minimal further construction.
This may seem somewhat radical to redirect the Mighty Mississippi itself. This is understandable, as a project of this magnitude is nothing less than extreme, but I believe we are in a similar position as the constructors of the Mississippi’s restraints. They chose the short term plan: the easy, “rational” decision. Now, we are the generation dealing with the consequences, and it is our job to find a solution—but this time, a sustainable one. It is time to discontinue the cycle of passing off environmental issues to our children: it is time for us to grow up and make the tough decisions. Our current plans, as reasonable as they may be, are masking symptoms but are by no means curing the disease. This will be no easy task and would take many years of extensive collaboration. The Louisiana coastline is one of the fastest changing in the world, and whatever plan we instate must emphasize flexibility. There will be unforeseen consequences and bumps in the road. The key is fluidity, not of the water, but of our ideas. However, unlike water, we must not follow the path of least resistance, we must put our nose to the grindstone and radically push for a more sustainable coastline.