• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

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The Flood of 2011 and the Atchafalaya Delta

“Artificial levees, extending clear to the Gulf of Mexico, may have made human habitation of the delta south of Cape Girardeau possible, but prevented the Mississippi from refreshing its marshes with its sediment when it did flood. Revetments built of concrete mats may have stabilized the navigation channel, but reduced erosion of the banks, a source of sediment in the marshes. James Eads’ jetties at the mouth of the river may have allowed the river to cut a thirty-foot navigation channel through the sandbar blocking the South Pass of the modern delta, but delivered sediment carried by the river to very deep water at the continental shelf, where it washed away, never to be used for marsh building. Closure of the old distributaries of the river may have prevented flooding in the bayou country of Louisiana, but cut the flow of Mississippi sediment to the coastal marshes. Channel dams may have made navigation on the Upper Mississippi profitable, but they retained its sediment north of Alton, Illinois. Dams on the Missouri, from which the Mississippi drew sixty percent of its sediment, did the same. In short at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the coastal marshes south of New Orleans received eighty percent less sediment than they had at the beginning of the twentieth and eroded away.”

I haven’t counted the number of posts I have begun with this quote from The Mississippiand I am doing so again.

Morganza Floodway Structure

Twice, 1973 and 2011, since it was constructed after the Flood of 1927, we have opened the Morganza Floodway Structure to release flood water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya River and Floodway. After the Flood of 1973, geologists noted that the Atchafalaya River was building land at its mouth, using all that mud funneled down the Mississippi from erosion from the Midwest and the South.

With this in mind geologists from the University of Pennsylvania–joined by others from the University of Mississippi, Louisiana State University, and the U.S. Geological Survey–began studying the sediment plumes that spewed out of the Mississippi, the Atchafalaya River and Wax Lake Outlet, and through the Bonnet Carre Spillway into Lake Pontchartrain during the Flood of 2011.

Sediment Plumes from the Atchafalaya, Mississippi, and Bonnet Carre

Atchafalaya Delta, 2009

The Atchafalaya slowly spread a wide plume of sediment in to Atchafalaya Bay, where it is building land. The Mississippi, which is too long and too flat and is hemmed between levees, is shooting its mud over the edge of the continental shelf, where it is useless for landbuilding.

Wax Lake Outlet Delta

Similarly, the Wax Lake Outlet, an artificial outlet from the Atchafalaya Basin, built to reduce flooding in the basin, is building its delta.

What is happening in Atchafalaya Bay is what happened naturally before we reengineered the Mississippi for flood control and navigation. Now that we have done it, we have to live with the consequences and find ways to restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands by mimicking the river’s ways. The Atchafalaya is an example. So is the Mardi Gras diversion at Bohemia, which opened up into Breton Sound this spring during Mardi Gras.

The Mississippi Ridge at Bohemia south of the end of the main line levee

The question about the Mardi Gras Diversion is whether we are going to keep it or dam it. It is an example of what is being done on a small scale and can be done on a large scale along the Mississippi south of New Orleans.


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