• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

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Demands on the Atchafalaya River: Rice Farming in the Mermentau Basin of Southwestern Louisiana

Grand Prairie Rice Field, Arkansas

Rice farmers needing water: they need it on Grand Prairie in Arkansas where they are depleting the great Mississippi Aquifer; they need it in Southwestern Louisiana where numerous alterations to the landscape has changed the way freshwater flows through the Mermentau and Calcasieu Basins west of Vermillion Bay.

For the long story about rice farming On Grand Prairie in Arkansas, read The Mississippi. Essentially, rice farmers on Grand Prairie want to tap the White River, which runs along the eastern edge of Grand Prairie, and pump the water through a series of canals and into their rice fields. The pump is under construction at Du Vall’s Bluff along the White River, which could change the way water flows through the White River National Wildlife Refuge.

And like rice farmers on Grand Prairie who want to tap the White River for water for their fields, rice farmers in the Mermentau Basin want to tap the Atchafalaya River, some sixty miles or more away, depending on where you tap the Atchafalaya. It will require a series of pumps and canals to accomplish the task.

Last summer as the Mississippi and Atchafalaya carried the Flood of 2011 to the Gulf of Mexico, the rice farmers in the Mermentau Basin watched in frustration as their rice fields dried up in the Drought of 2011 and salt water intruded into them from the Gulf. Some farmers never even planted a crop.  And because they double crop and breed crawfish in their rice ponds, that source of income was also compromised.

The Mermantau and Calcasieu Basins form the Chenier Plain, which William Darby described to a “T” in 1818:

“The marsh between Vermilion bay and the Lake of Mermentau, has nothing to distinguish it from the other marshes of the country, except in its extent, which is about thirty miles square. This great expanse, though generally covered with grass, is not entirely denuded of trees. Near the sea-coast, a singular appearance attracts the attention. These are ridges, which rise above the common level of the marsh, are dry and solid land, clothed with live oak trees. These ridges appear to have once been the sea-shore, and to have been in succession abandoned by the surf, as others were formed by the same means; they all run in lines parallel to the shore, and are separated by lagoons, ponds or the marsh. It is extremely difficult to reach many of these islands; and as no adequate object presents itself to reward the trouble, they are visited but seldom by man. They are the undisturbed retreat of wild animals, deer, turkies, grouse, and perhaps the bear.”–William Darby, 1818

Sediment, pouring out of the Mississippi and flowing westward on longshore currents, came to rest in the successive ridges that form southern reaches of the Chenier Plain. We have disrupted that process of land building with the changes we have made to the Mississippi. There is less sediment spewing out of the river. What does flow out of the river is deposited in very deep water at the continental shelf, where it is unavailable for land building. We have disrupted the long shore currents with jetties. However, some sediment is flowing out of the Atchafalaya and being deposited on the eastern edge of the Chenier Plain, but not enough.

The Mermentau Basin breaks down into two parts: the northern wet prairie, where rice is grown, and the southern Chenier Plain, where ridges and wetlands alternate across the landscape.

 

Like Grand Prairie the northern reaches of the Mermentau Basin are wet prairie, where the low grade and heavy clay soil are ideal for rice farming, because clay prevents the water in rice fields from seeping into the aquifer below. And like Grand Prairie farmers have tapped the bayous that flow through the region and constructed a system of canals to deliver water to their rice fields. In doing so they have changed the way water flows through the region. 

The Corps of Engineers constructed a series of locks and water control structures on Grand and White Lakes to control water levels, convert them into freshwater reservoirs for rice irrigation, and prevent the intrusion of saltwater into the lakes. Continuing high water levels in the Lakes sub-basin drowned wetlands and shifted in the composition of plants. Where excessive flooding eroded the rims of Grand Lake and White Lake, the marshes behind and below the rims also eroded. Saltwater intruding along navigation canals killed freshwater plants, baring the soil that supported them. Tides washed the soil away, converting marshlands to open water.[i]

Then there is what we have done to the Chenier Plain itself: The construction of Louisiana Highway 82 in 1958 across the top of Pecan Island, through the marshes, and across the top of Grand Chenier Ridge, all in the southern reaches, stopped the natural flow of water from north to south. The system of thirty-two culverts and a dozen bridges, designed to allow drainage through the highway, never adequately replaced the natural drainage in the basin. By the turn of the twenty-first century most of the culverts had silted in or collapsed, turning Highway 82 into a dam across the basin, leaving the Lakes sub-basin to the north subject to constant flooding and the Chenier sub-basin to the south starved for freshwater.

The dredging of the Freshwater Bayou Channel, the Mermentau River-Gulf of Mexico Navigation Channel, and dozens of oil access channels allowed saltwater into the Chenier sub-basin marshes, which disintegrated. The introduction of suspended sediment into the western part of the sub-basin restored some of the marshes, but they were disappearing from the rest of the basin.[ii]

The Atchafalaya River is a distributary of the Mississippi. It carries 30% of the Mississippi all of the Red River to the Gulf of Mexico. It is the Mississippi “wannabe,” and Congress and the Corps of Engineers have worked hard to keep the Atchafalaya from capturing the full flow of the Mississippi. Louisiana’s coastal scientists are looking at the Atchafalaya as a source of fresh water for the declining coastal marches, particularly those in the western Terrebonne basin, where salt water is intruding into freshwater marshes. Already, Atchafalaya water is being directed into the Vermillion Basin, just to the east of the Mermantau Basin. A year ago Mermentau rice farmers watched their rice fields dry up as the Flood of 2011 drained away into the Gulf of Mexico, where it was useless for rice farming. Some of that precious freshwater did make its way into the western Terrebonne marshes, where, for the summer of 2011, it pushed salt water out of the marshes.


[i]             Clark, Darryl, and Mazourek, Joyce, Final Environmental Assessment, Freshwater Introduction south of LA Highway 82 Project (ME-16), Lafayette, Louisiana: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,  Marsh 2005, 1, http://lacoast.gov/reports/env/Hwy%2082%20ME-16.pdf.

[ii]             Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, Hydrologic Investigation of the Louisiana Chenier Plain, Prepared for the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force, October 2002, 15, http://www.lacoast.gov/reports/static/HILCP_2.pdf;

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The Dead Zone, Chicago Sewage, and Asian Carp

Chicago Portage or Mud Lake, the Continental Divide between Drainage to the Gulf of Mexico and Drainage to Lake Michigan

Over a year ago I wrote that Chicago is the largest contributor of nutrients to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1848 construction workers on the Illinois and Michigan Canal broke through the low continental divide, located several miles outside of Chicago, that separates drainage to the Gulf of Mexico from drainage to Lake Michigan and the Atlantic Ocean. The canal served as a navigation link between Lake Michigan and the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

In 1900 the City of Chicago decided to stop depositing its sewage in the Lake Michigan, from which it also drew its drinking water, and replaced the Illinois and Michigan Canal with the Chicago Sanitary Canal, which connected to the Des Plaines River and drainage to the Gulf of Mexico. Okay, this is old news. You can read the full history in my earlier post.

The canal that is handy for sending Chicago’s sewage south turned into a major navigation route between the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Michigan.

String of Carp caught at Lock and Dam #26, Upper Mississippi River, Alton, Illinois

It also may turn into a major conduit for silver carp from the Mississippi and Illinois rivers into Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes fishing industry is in an uproar and want the Chicago Sanitary Canal closed to keep the carp out of the Great Lakes. Of course the navigation industry is also up in arms about the thought of losing an important navigation channel to the fish. In short folks are lining up on both sides of the issue, keeping the connection between the Mississippi-Illinois Waterway and Lake Michigan or severing it.

The carp have a taste for algae. Fish farmers introduced the carp to their ponds to clean up the algae. However, they excrete phosphorous and nitrogen, which produce more algae, which grow, die, and decay, creating low-oxygen conditions. The fish got loose into the Mississippi during the Flood of 1993 and have been racing north even since. They also feed on zooplankton, which feed on algae, creating more algae and more low-oxygen conditions. And, it breeds like rabbits,  grows to thirty pounds fast, and hates loud noises. Run a noisy, high-speed motor boat across the river, or even a small trolling motor, and the fish leaps out of the water and into your boat. People have been hurt.

The concern is that the carp will take over the food supply in the Great Lakes and destroy the existing fisheries.

The good news maybe that there are not enough algae in Lake Michigan to keep the carp fat and happy, because the zebra mussel got there first on the hulls of those ships, which navigate the Chicago Sanitary Canal from the Gulf of Mexico with the critters attached.

Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois has decided, “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.” In July he made a deal with the Beiging Zhuocheng Aminal Husbandry Company to ship Asian carp, processed in Illinois, to China, where the Chinese have a taste for the fish.

After Katrina, Gov. Quinn, then Lt. Gov. Quinn offered to send sediment dredged from the Illinois River to Louisiana to rebuild the marshes. The man is not without an imagination.

The summer 2010 issue of Our Mississippi, the publication of the Rock Island District of the Corps of Engineers, has three recipes for carp: fried carp, carp with fresh berries, and carp cakes.  You will find the recipes on page 7.

Back to the Dead Zone. The other major contributor of nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico are wheat, corn, and soybean fields of the Mississippi Drainage Basin, which stretches from the Appalachians to the Rockies and from the divides that hold the Great Lakes south. NASA has a video that explains the Dead Zone.

Farmfields from levee set a mile east of the Mississippi at Columbia, Illinois

The Mississippi has been high since early spring. The field at the Illinois end of the Jefferson Barracks bridge between south St. Louis County, Missouri and Monroe County, Illinois has been flooded for the whole summer and for the better part of three years. Because the river has been high, the Dead Zone, which usually appears in June, arrived in August.

Drainage Basin of the Mississippi River, from NASA

Bob Marshall has an article in today’s New Orleans Times-Picayune, which explains the Dead Zone as well as anybody. Folks from the National Wildlife Federation flew over the Breton Sound and the Chandeleur Islands last week, looking for oil, and found the milky-red Dead Zone instead.

NASA Image of the Dead Zone

It’s August and the Dead Zone

It’s a yearly expansion of a natural occurrence in the Gulf of Mexico: This year the Dead Zone has grown to the size of Massachusetts. After the Flood of 1993, it grew to the size of New Jersey. LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, has posted a PDF file on how their scientist tracked this years Dead Zone.

I wrote about it last year, I am writing about it this year, and I will write about it next year, until we become willing to control the amount of fertilizers we contribute to the Dead Zone. And, by the way, there are Dead Zones in the navigation pools of the Upper Mississippi and in the great oxbows of the Lower Mississippi Valley.

When I first started working on The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I hung out in the annual meetings of the now-defunct Mississippi River Basin Alliance, a collection of environmental groups and local activists concerned about how we manage the Mississippi River and its floodplain. I sat through meetings, which at the time, were about things I barely understood, but which I knew I was going to have to learn if I were to write a credible book on the modern river and the issues surrounding its management. This is where I learned about the channelization of streams, excess nutrients on farm fields in the Mississippi Basin, and the Dead Zone.

Lake Washington, Glen Allen, Mississippi

Later as I was researching the places I was photographing, I learned that the great oxbow lakes in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana are in as much trouble as the navigation pools on the Upper Mississippi. Nutrients are washing off fields in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Basin and into the oxbows, creating low-oxygen conditions, dead zones.

Lake Washington Bayou

Lake Washington drains to Washington Bayou, which carries its water to Steele Bayou, the Yazoo River, and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico, where a hypoxic zone, devoid of oxygen, blossoms every summer. Reducing the nutrients flowing to the Gulf of Mexico means reducing the nutrients flowing from places like Lake Washington.

A 1996 study of the work done earlier in the decade found Lake Washington had more of everything, except dissolved oxygen: more sediment, more nutrients, more sewage, more algal blooms, and more cormorants, hanging out at the local fish farm.

In 2003 the State of Mississippi enrolled Lake Washington in the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia reduction program to restore its watershed. Again, the state identified the sources of non-point pollution flowing to the lake. Again, the state outlined the best management practices to control the pollution. The project had good state and local support. Lake Washington Property Owners Association expressed concern about sewage, cormorants, and the state of commercial fishing. The Washington County Board of Supervisors were concerned about sewage. The Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District was also concerned about sewage. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality supported the project.  So did the Mississippi Department of Health. On the federal level, the project had the support of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program, and the Yazoo River Basin Team of twenty-three state and federal agencies. Ducks Unlimited and other non-governmental organizations supported the project.

Project partners adopted the EPA 9 watershed planning elements to develop their plan: Identify and quantify all the water quality issues effecting Lake Washington–nutrient levels, sediment, sewage, cormorants, over-fishing. Estimate what it would take to reduce non-point pollution and restore water quality. Describe the means of achieving restoration. Estimate how much financial and technical assistant would be needed to implement a plan. Educate the public about the need for restoration. Schedule the work. Define milestones. Set criteria for success. Develop a monitoring plan.

The first step was collecting the data. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality measured the load of nutrients in Lake Washington every month, beginning in November 2002, measured fecal coliform in July and August 2004, assessed fish kills in September 2004, and mapped the depth of the lake yearly to estimate the amount of soil being eroded into the lake. The Mississippi Department of Health assessed the wastewater treatment system at the lake.

Beginning in January 2004 the partners, including the residents of Lake Washington held a series of fifteen meetings at which they wrote a hypoxia action plan and plans for controlling wastewater and fisheries. Their last meeting would be held in December 2006 at which point the partners would be ready to implement the plan to restore Lake Washington.

In 2008 the EPA announced a action plan to control nutrients delivered to the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi Basin. A year ago the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service announced that the agencies will provide $325 million over four years to farmers in Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.  This will help the farmers implement conservation measures to retain nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, in their fields, keep the runoff out of the Ohio and Mississippi and therefore out of the Gulf of Mexico.[i]


[i] U.S. Environmental Quality Agency, Gulf of Mexico Program, “Lake Washington Nutrient Showcase Project,” Meeting Summary, October 25, 2003, http://www.epa.gov/gmpo/lmrsbc/meetsum_lakewa_oct03.html; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Handbook for Develping Watershed Plans to Restore and Protect Our Waters, Chapter 2, Overview of Watershed Planning Process, October 2005, http://www.epa.gov/owow/nps/watershed_handbook/pdf/ch02.pdf; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Gulf of Mexico Program, Lake Washington Watershed–Nutrient Reduction Showcase Project, Power Point Slide Show, http://www.epa.gov/gmpo/presentations/lmrsbc-lakewashington/lmr-lakewashington.html; Winkley, Brien R., Man-made Cutoffs on the Lower Mississippi River, Conception, Construction, and River Response, Potamology Investigations, Report 300-2, Vicksburg: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1977, 39-40.

Oil, Ducks, the Louisiana Coast, and Tara Wildlife

An article on the work that Tara Wildlife is doing to provide winter habitat for migrating ducks has been sitting on my desk for over a week. It is a follow up on an article I wrote three weeks ago about providing feeding stops for waterfowl north of the Louisiana Coast to keep them out of the oiled wetlands.

In that time Michael Grunwald at Time has published an article stating that maybe, just maybe the BP gusher will cause less damage to Louisiana’s wetlands than the airboats skidding across the wetlands to remove the oil will cause. Grunwald and the scientists he interviewed, G. Paul Kemp, who suggested in May that the Corps of Engineers change the Mississippi/Atchafalaya ratio of 70/30 to 80/20 to hold back the oil,  and Ivor van Heerden, who documented the levee failures in New Orleans during Katrina in The Storm, have documented only 350 acres of oiled wetlands, tiny compared to the 2,000 square miles of wetlands lost to oil and gas canals reamed through the marshes to get at the oil. Len Bahr at LaCoastPost, who traveled with Grunwald on his tour of Barataria Bay, followed up with a posting that reflects what Grunwald described in Time.

Brecount Lake, Near Tara Wildlife

Still the work that is being done at Tara Wildlife to provide refuge for migrating waterfowl is important, because it is being done at a private refuge, albeit with public money. The US Department of Agriculture will give $6.1 million dollars to  private landowners in Mississippi to turn low-lying lands on their properties to wetlands for migrating waterfowl this fall. Some of that money will go to Tara Wildlife, which is creating wetlands on its lowlands.

When I was writing The Mississippi: A Visual Biography the reader suggested that I look into private efforts to restore wetlands. Fortunately, I had already toured Tara Wildlife with Sidney Montgomery, an avid bass angler who was Tara’s marketing director at the time. From him I learned about Tara’s owner Maggie Bryant, who inherited 20,000 acres from her husband and decided to take the land out of row crops and put it in conservation on her own. Tara fronts on twelve miles of the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg near Eagle Lake, an oxbow. In 2001 Bryant put 17,000 acres under conservation easement with Ducks Unlimited that that it would always be used for conservation.

Bryant and her staff manage Tara for sustainability. She took her cropland out of production and put in timber, rotating Tara’s harvest on an eighty-year cycle. First, she protected the young hardwoods from her carefully managed herd of deer. In the early years Tara refuge managed the deer for a private hunt club, and then offered it facilities to bow-hunters. Tara also catered to bird hunters, turkeys in the spring and dove and quail in the fall. The summers were devoted to youth camps to introduce kids to outdoor skills, wildlife management, and conservation. Bird watchers came to Tara for the 115 species that have been identified, including white ibis, roseate spoonbills, thousands of wood storks, and a pair of nesting bald eagles. As a dividend, birders might spot a silky black squirrel, more common in the northeast than the southeast, scrambling up a tree. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the folks at Tara began seeing Louisiana black bears, forty sightings in 2001 alone, leading wildlife biologists to hope that one day this private refuge would support a breeding population.

In 2006 Tara joined in a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and nineteen others* to encourage wildlife conservation on private lands. The Mississippi Partners for Fish and Wildlife hoped to build on the kind conservation work Bryan and her staff performed at Tara, and initiate bottomland reforestation projects, manage their timber, reestablish the hydrology in their wetlands, undam their streams and reestablish flow, and establish riparian buffers along their streams to absorb nutrients flowing off their fields.

In April 2001, the Jackson, Mississippi office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its fact sheet on the Yazoo Backwater Project, the Corps’ proposal to drain the lower third of the Yazoo basin with a huge pump, costing $181 million. The service refused to support the project. Among the several reasons given, the service feared that draining the backwater region would reverse the progress the private landowners had made in restoring its wetlands. Agriculture would replace conservation, farm fields would replace wetlands, corn and soybeans would replace bottomland hardwoods. Wildlife would lose habitat.

Finally, in 2002 Mrs. Bryant funded the salary of a full time staffer at the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee through the Tara Foundation and the Purvis Grange Foundation, two foundations she set up for the purpose of making contributions to conservation projects.[i] Photograph, 2006

*Audubon Mississippi, Delta Wildlife, Inc., Ducks Unlimited, International Paper Company, Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Mississippi Department of Transportation, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Mississippi Forestry Commission, Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Mississippi Wildlife Federation, Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Foundation, Mississippi Chapter–National Wild Turkey Federation, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Quail Unlimited, Tara Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Weyerhaeuser Company.


[i] Young, Matt, “Tara’s Treasures,” Ducks Unlimited, May/June 2002, http://www.ducks.org/DU_Magazine/DUMagazineMayJune2002/2217/TarasTreasures.html; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Perspective on The Corps of Engineers’ Proposed Yazoo Pumps Project,” April 25, 2001, http://www.fws.gov/southeast/pubs/facts/yazooback.pdf.

The Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee Meeting

Eagles feeding at East Dubuque, Illinois

I spent Wednesday with the biologists and scientists who are members of the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee. These are the people who are devoted to the river and who make it their life’s work to study the critters who depend on the health of the river to live out their life cycles.  The scientists work for the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge and for the state Departments of Natural Resources. I was there to peddle my book, The Mississippi: A Visual Biography; they were there to see each other face to face and learn from each other, which they said makes them very efficient in their advocacy for the river.

This is the oldest advocacy group on the river. These are the people whose objected to the creation of a 12-foot navigation channel on the Upper Mississippi after 1968 led Congress to reject a 12-foot channel in 1972. These are the people whose  opposition to a second 600-foot lock on the new Lock and Dam 26  led  Congress to declare the Upper Mississippi a nationally significant ecosystem and create the Environmental Management Program and limited restoration of the Upper Mississippi ecosystem in the 1986 Water Resources Development Act.

In January 2000 the group published A River that Works and a Working River , a strategy to restore and maintain the Upper Mississippi River System. The report detailed the importance of the natural resources of the river, described how we have changed the river’s physical processes, explained how we could use the processes to manage its ecosystem, itemized the components of the strategy for restoring the river’s ecosystem, and laid out the means of implementing the strategy. They list other publications on their web site, including two histories, one on wildlife and hunting and one on fish and fishing. The site is worth a visit.

When I first started developing the text for The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I studied the geological history of the river, how the river was formed by glacial action. I learned that geologists are very generous people and were willing to check my research to see if I got it right.

I also learned that Upper River geologists never seemed to talk to Lower River geologists and visa versa. The guru of the formation of the headwaters writes about glacial melt that streamed out of the headwaters to “St. Paul and beyond.” The guru of the Lower Mississippi never seemed to acknowledge where all that sediment that built the floodplain south of Cape Girardeau came from. But people studying sediment in the Gulf of Mexico related it to sediment that had streamed out of the headwaters.  This isolation is beginning to change and Upper River geologists are beginning to collaborate with Lower River geologists on different studies.

So, I was not surprised to find that this group of Upper Mississippi scientists suffer from a similar isolation. As they paged through the photographs in my book, they noted how different the Lower Mississippi valley, where the river meandered from valley wall to valley wall (a distance of up to 70 miles), leaving behind wetlands every time it shifted to a new course, from the Upper Mississippi valley, where the river is confined to a narrow gorge and is the wetland. Nor was I surprised to hear that many had never been to the White River NWR or the Cache River NWR in the lower valley, nor had they been to the Louisiana coast.

Wigwam Slough near LaCrosse, Wisconsin

Nor have my friends who live on the Louisiana coast ever seen the magnificent Upper Mississippi River Gorge and its wetlands, which are as stressed, for different reasons, as their beloved Louisiana wetlands.

Former Cypress Swamp East of New Orleans

Upper Mississippi at the Mouth of the Wisconsin River near McGregor, Iowa

When Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet floated floated out of the mouth of the Wisconsin River into the Upper Mississippi, they discovered a river that was an integrated system from the headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico. Each part was depended on every other part. As we saw in 2008, when Hurricane Ike blew up through Arkansas into Missouri and Illinois and set off the second flood of the year, even Louisiana hurricanes  can have consequences on the upper valley. I conclude The Mississippi: A Visual Biography this way:

“Mud: it’s the most important ingredient the Mississippi has to contribute to coastal restoration. Where the river deposits these mineral soils in still waters, it settles and builds land. Freshwater and nutrients come with the mud and nourish the vegetation that takes root in it. The vegetation holds mud in place, filters more mud out of the water column, grows, dies, and decays into organic soil, and sustains the new land against subsidence and rising sea levels.

“Mississippi mud came from wind blown loess–rock flour– deposited on the uplands overlooking the Upper Mississippi and returned to the river by its tributaries. It came from the limestone and sandstone canyons of the Upper Mississippi, from the glacial debris that lined the banks of the Ohio, from the shale and sandstone cliffs of the Upper Missouri, from the eroded banks of the Lower Mississippi. And, in the twentieth century when we built dams on the Upper Mississippi, on the Upper Missouri, and on the Ohio, when we built headwater dams on all the tributaries of the Lower Mississippi, when we built revetments on the Lower Mississippi to straighten its channel and stop its meandering ways, and when we diverted one-third of the river’s water and sediment to the Atchafalaya, we deprived the river of this most valuable ingredient. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the river delivered eighty per cent less sediment to the Gulf of Mexico than it had at the beginning of the twentieth. And, because we turned Southwest Pass into a deep draft navigation channel, what sediment was left in the water column, poured out of the pass and drifted westward, driven by the wind, away from the delta and over the continental shelf.”

I admonish all those people who love the Mississippi to get to know all its parts.

Conservation Groups Object to the Extension of Upper Mississippi Locks

Old Niota, Pool 19, Upper Mississippi River

Three years ago, Congress finally passed the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, called the WRDA, authorizing the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which would govern the expansion of 5 locks on the Upper Mississippi from 600 feet to 1200 feet and 2 on the Illinois, and govern the restoration of the Upper Mississippi ecosystem. Congress ordered that lock expansion and ecosystem happen simultaneously.

It did so after years of controversy over the lock expansion, beginning in February 2000 when Donald Sweeney, an economist for the St. Louis District of the Corps of Engineers, blew the whistle on the project, claiming that the Corps was “cooking the books” to justify the expansion.

The Corps suspended the project after the National Academy of Sciences issued its report on the study in February 2001. From The Mississippi: A Visual Biography:

“The Academy congratulated the Corps of Engineers for developing Sweeney’s formula which it characterized as ‘the first comprehensive model of grain use and exports from the area surrounding the river system,’ but it castigated the engineers for using flawed data and assumptions, when applying the formula to the growth of grain exports and therefore of barge traffic on the Upper Mississippi. The Academy congratulated the Corps for attempting to build a model of the environmental effects of extending the locks and increasing barge traffic, but it castigated the engineers for failing to acknowledge that large-scale structures on the Upper Mississippi have had and would continue to have long-term environmental effects on the river. The Academy concluded that system-wide research needed to be done on the ‘cumulative effects of the existing navigation system on river ecology, on the environmental effects of recent navigation improvements, on the cumulative effects of increased towboat passage, and on site-specific effects of future construction activities on the Upper Mississippi.’”

When the Corps returned to work on the project, the engineers incorporation ecosystem restoration into the study. And, after years of back and forth over the project, the Corps finally averred that lock expansion was not needed and that there are other ways of speeding navigation through the locks without damaging the ecosystem. The engineers turned the future of the project over to Congress.

Congress, at the behest of Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-MO), a champion of the barge industry, included the expansion in the 2007 WRDA.

Bond and the barge industry got their locks expansion, but the river conservationists got thier ecosystem restoration, if Congress would only fund it. Hence, the requirement that lock expansion and ecosystem restoration happen simultaneously, because, both Congress and the Corps much prefer concrete to the flora and fauna the ecosystem supports.

In March 2008 Corps reexamined lock expansion in the light of new data, including the huge spike in fuel prices in 2008, and declared it necessary after all. See the link to the Final Reevaluation of the Study here. I have not included it because it refuses to load on Safari and I have to start over.

Early in 2008, after years of squabbling with the barge industry over locks v. ecosystem, The Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society joined with the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association, which represents the governors of the states bordering the river, and the Waterways Council, which represents the navigation industry, in urging Congress to fund the project to the tune of $50 million for 2009.

Now it seems that some members of the environmental community are not so sanguin about lock expansion. In February 2010, a decade after Don Sweeney blew the whistle on the project, a coalition of the Sierra Club, Izaak Walton League, and the National Wildlife Federation called on Congress to de-authorize the expansion of the locks, siting all the reasons Sweeney gave for not expanding the locks in 2000: barge traffic has been flat for decades, there are other, cheaper means of reducing the backup of barges waiting to get through the locks, and expansion is not justified. The group would continue authorization of ecosystem restoration.

I devote a chapter in The Mississippi: A Visual Biography to the relationship between Congress and the Corps of Engineers. The University of Missouri Press has included an excerpt from the chapter in the media kit from the book’s webpage.

Here is a coupon for 20% off on the purchase of The Mississippi: A Visual Biography: Coupon for purchase of The Mississippi, 20% off. You can download it and use the 800 number, mail it in, or go to the University of Missouri Press site and insert AFS9 in the promo code box next to the check out box.

Indian Creek at the Upper Mississippi, Pool 25

The Realities of the Mississippi, the Missouri,the Atchafalaya, the Louisiana Coast, and New Orleans

Last week a pair of geologists, at the University of Texas, Austin, proposed diverting the Mississippi and its sediment to Breton Sound on the east and Barataria Bay to the west in order to build new deltas in each body of water.

 

DiversionIllustration

Illustration from Science Daily, (Credit: AGU/EOS)

They would make the diversions about ninety miles south of New Orleans, my guess near Grand Bayou on the west, where the Mississippi levee runs, and Bohemia on the east, where the Mississippi River levee ends.

 

Bohemia

Mississippi River Ridge at Bohemia

Like other who have proposed Mississippi River diversions to build land in Louisiana, they have looked at the landbuilding that is going on at the mouth of the Atchafalaya River and the Wax Lake Outlet from the Atchafalaya Basin. Since the completion of the Old River Control Structure in 1962, the Atchafalaya has funneled off 1/3 of the Mississippi water and sediment at Old River, about 200 miles north of New Orleans. The Atchafalaya also carries all of the Red River and its sediment to the Gulf of Mexico, where it is building new land. Last summer the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers announced it would study changing the ratio of Mississippi to the Atchafalaya with an eye to diverting more water and sediment to the Atchafalaya.

It should be noted that the Corps built the Old River Control Structure to keep the Mississippi from diverting to the Atchafalaya on its own in its effort to find a shorter, steeper route to the Gulf of Mexico.

 

OldRiverControl

Old River Control Structure

All of this runs in the face of a paper published four months ago by a pair of geologists from Louisiana State University, stating that there is not enough sediment in the Mississippi to rebuild the Louisiana Coast. It’s all trapped behind dams in the Mississippi River basin, dams designed sometimes to retain floodwater in the uplands until the Mississippi and its tributaries could handle them, and built sometimes because the Corps of Engineers could and Congress approved.

Carl Pope, Executiver Director of the Sierra Club, put all this in perspective in an article at the Huffington Post. He came away from the Ecumenical Patriarch’s Eighth Religion, Science and the Environment Symposium with his own take on the state of the Mississippi River, the Missouri, the Atchafalaya, the Louisiana Coast, and New Orleans: they are all of a piece. The only way we are going to save the Louisiana Coast and New Orleans is to release the sediment, trapped behind dams on the Missouri, which supplied 60% of the mud to the Mississippi in 1900, and allow it to flow down the Mississippi/Atchafalaya and build land along the Louisiana Coast. This sediment is needed to keep up with the rise in sea level, which will come as Arctic ice melts.

To get the sediment to the coastal wetlands, something will have to be done about the levees that keep the Mississippi spilling over into the Louisiana parishes south of New Orleans. And, the river needs more room to flood north of New Orleans, where it is hemmed between levees–that protect cotton, corn, and soybeans–clear to the mouth of the Missouri River and above, where the Flood of 2008 breached agricultural levees in northern Illinois and farmers want a 500-year levee to protect their fields. New Orleans may get a 100-year levee someday.

Copyright © Quinta Scott, 2009, All Rights Reserved