• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

    "Great book and great blog - thanks for the first book I have seen that addresses the contemporary river, headwaters to gulf." Dan McGuiness, Audubon, St. Paul, Minnesota

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Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana


Bayou Jean Charles runs through Isle de Jean Charles

Isle de Jean Charles: Bayou St. Jean Charles

Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana

Dangling out at the end of a thread in the Point aux Chenes Wildlife Management Area is the narrow ridge created by Bayou St. Jean Charles. The string, the island road actually, connects the community of Isle St. Jean Charles to solid ground at Point aux Chenes, where a new, gated community was being built in the fall of 2006. A fourteen-foot hurricane levee will protect the new houses in the gated subdivision. No such levee will protect the small wooden houses that line Bayou Jean Charles, which bisects its narrow ridge. Fiddler crabs drag their single claws along the muddy banks of the stream. Rickety wooden walks connect the houses on the far side of the bayou to the single road that runs the length of the island.

Isle St. Jean Charles is the home of a group of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaws. Before the road, a dirt track built through the marshes in 1953, islanders came and went by boat and made their livings from the marshes–fishing, shrimping, crabbing, and trapping. In 1960s the road was upgraded with crushed clamshells, with black top in the 1970s, and raised and fortified with granite boulders, against which waves can crash, in the 1990s. It promptly sank six inches. High tide can cover it and swamp the wetlands to the north. Hurricanes can flood it. Rita poured four feet of water over it. The history of the road is the history of the marshes on either side of it. They, too, have sunk. By the end of the twentieth century where residents of the island once grazed their cattle and grew their corn, potatoes, beans, okra, and melons had turned to a salt marsh or open water.

Until the early 1900s islanders built their houses of “bousillage,” a mixture of clay and mud and roofed them with domes woven from the palmetto that thrived under the live oaks woods that once shaded their houses and anchored their ridge for a quarter mile back. Now, live oaks are dead; their skeletons rake the sky.

The residents of Isle St. Jean Charles measure their years by what hurricane hit when: Hilda in 1964 flooded the island with thirty-six inches, Betsy in 1965 tore off roofs and siding, Carmen in 1974–thirty-eight inches of water, Juan in 1984–eighteen inches, Danny in 1985–more water, Andrew in 1992–eighteen inches, Lili in 2002 battered houses, Katrina in 2005 blew off roofs, Rita in 2005 blew in four feet of water. FEMA never showed, nor did the American Red Cross. As more and more families left, the community, like the marshes, fragmented. Half the 240 people living on the island in 1997 were gone by 2006.[i]

Isle de Jean Charles is being lost to the destruction of the Louisiana Deltaic Marshes by careless oil and gas drilling. And it continues. It is also being lost to rising sea levels.

For more read the following article in Daily Kos.

[i]             Quaid, John, “Written Off: The Gulf is slowly swallowing Isle de Jean Charles and other south Louisiana towns,” Special Edition: Washing Away, 1997, New Orleans Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com/hurricane/index.ssf?/washingaway/writtenoff_4.html; Norrell, Brenda, “Living in the aftermoth of two Killer storms,” Indian Country Today, October 2, 2006, http://www.indiancountry.com/content.cfm?id=1096413755.


Tough Times on the Mississippi. Maybe not so tough.

The Coast Guard closed two sections of the Mississippi over last weekend, where barges broke loose at St. Louis and Vicksburg, rammed bridges,  and then sunk.

Thursday we had 4-5 inches of rain in Monroe County, Illinois at the east in of the Jefferson Barracks bridge, which was hit by one or more barges early Sunday morning. All that water poured into the Mississippi, causing the first flooding since the fall of 2011. This morning the flood gauge at St. Louis hit 35 feet, five feet above flood level, the highest it has been since 2008. The Coast Guard reopened the river this morning, It seems the sunken barges will cause no harm to navigation and the stranded barges are outside the navigation channel.

The Jefferson Barracks Reach of the Middle Mississippi, July 2012.

The Jefferson Barracks Reach of the Middle Mississippi, July 2012.

At Jefferson Barracks the Mississippi is wide and shallow and has caused the Corps of Engineers no end of trouble since the first began deepening the channel to 9 feet in 1872. Last summer the drought was so severe and the river at Jefferson Barracks so shallow that sandbars were forming between the dikes.

The Jefferson Barracks Dike Field, St. Louis Harbor

The Jefferson Barracks Dike Field, St. Louis Harbor

Upstream of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge the dike field was exposed so long that vegetation took root and got a pretty good start before flooding came along and washed it away.


Lower Reach of Jefferson Barracks Chute

Lower Reach of Jefferson Barracks Chute

Last summer the side channels almost dried up. This spring flooding has filled them and flushed out excess sediment. Fish will be able to find quiet places to spawn.

Low Water on the Mississippi and Thebes Gap

Thebes Gap:

Alexander County, Illinois

“Here is a vast ledge of rocks, which stretch across the river in a direct line. The best channel in the middle of the river, in which place in low water, there is not more than six feet over the rocks.”–Zadoc Cramer, 1814

Rock Formation in the Middle Mississippi at Thebes Gap, 2006

Rock Formation in the Middle Mississippi at Thebes Gap, 2006

The Mississippi is running very low. After the Flood of 2011, the river drained away very quickly and the rain stopped. By the Summer of 2012, we in the Midwest were well into the Drought of 2012 and the river was showing the effects. Now in January 2013, the Upper Mississippi is frozen and the system of locks and dams is retaining water north of Alton, Illinois. On the Missouri a similar system of dams is retaining water in South Dakota and too little water is flowing into the Mississippi to maintain water levels for the 9-foot navigation channel on the Middle River.

Look at any aerial photograph of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi. The muddy Missouri spews a flume of silty water into the relatively clear Mississippi. They flow side by side downstream--the Missouri on the west, the Mississippi on the east--for several miles. During the very cold winter of 2000-2001 it was possible to see this phenomenon from the Illinois bank near the spot where Lewis and Clark started their journey up the Missouri: Lock and Dam 26 at Alton trapped ice coming down the Mississippi. South of the dam the river flowed free of ice, but ice did flow out of the mouth of the Missouri. At the confluence the two rivers, the icy Missouri and the ice-free Mississippi flowed side by side in the Mississippi channel.

Look at any aerial photograph of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi. The muddy Missouri spews a flume of silty water into the relatively clear Mississippi. They flow side by side downstream–the Missouri on the west, the Mississippi on the east–for several miles. During the very cold winter of 2000-2001 it was possible to see this phenomenon from the Illinois bank near the spot where Lewis and Clark started their journey up the Missouri: Lock and Dam 26 at Alton trapped ice coming down the Mississippi. South of the dam the river flowed free of ice, but ice did flow out of the mouth of the Missouri. At the confluence the two rivers, the icy Missouri and the ice-free Mississippi flowed side by side in the Mississippi channel. In the Winter of 2013 too little water is spewing out of the Missouri to feed the Middle Mississippi.

 Thebes Gap is the geological break point between the Upper Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi. The Upper Mississippi flows through a rocky gorge from Minneapolis to Thebes Gap. South of there the Lower Mississippi meanders across an alluvial plain.

At the beginning of the glacial age, the Lower Mississippi flowed along the western valley wall through an alluvial floodplain in the Western Lowlands along the Black, White, and St. Francis Rivers.

From The Mississippi: “Geologists have speculated that the river abandoned its alluvial valley and diverted through Thebes Gap, a narrow bedrock canyon in the Benton Hills, through the series of glacial floods at the end of the Wisconsinan age. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, seismologists questioned why the Mississippi would abandon its comfortable alluvial valley to ream a new course through bedrock. They noted that fault lines in the Benton Hills were active 10,000 years ago, and speculated that an earthquake along fault lines in the Benton Hills opened the canyon that is Thebes Gap. Glacial River Warren, which broke out of a glacial lake that covered northern Minnesota and North Dakota and reached north into Canada,  thundered through it, and deposited a classical alluvial fan at the mouth of the canyon.”

 “Thebes at the head of the Grand Chain and Commerce at the foot of it were towns easily rememberable as they had not undergone conspicuous alteration. Nor the Chain, either–in the nature of things; it is a chain of sunken rocks admirably arranged to capture and kill steamboats on bad nights.–Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Thebes Gap, where the Mississippi takes a wide turn into the narrow reach of Thebes Gap.

Thebes Gap, where the Mississippi takes a wide turn into the narrow reach of Thebes Gap.

Mark Twain knew Thebes Gap, and while it is no longer killing steamboats, this winter modern tows can’t get through this narrow gorge between the Upper Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have contracted with Newt Marine and Kokosing, a marine engineering firm out of Iowa and Michigan,  to remove the rocks from Thebes Gap. When they are done there on January 11, they will move on to Grand Tower.

A tow steams passed Tower Rock at the beginning of December.

A tow steams passed Tower Rock at the beginning of December.

The river level today at Chester, Illinois is -0.6 feet, which means it is possible to walk out to Tower Rock and see just how low the Mississippi is.

[i]             Cramer, 173; Harrison, Richard W., “Report on Investigations of the Benton Hills, Scott County, Missouri, in Midwest Friends of the Pliestocene, 42nd Annual Meeting, 19-21 May 1995, 7.3; Harrison, Richard W., “Mid-Continent Urban Corridor Mapping Project,” USGS Project No.: 7160-11, U.S. Geological Survey, http://erp-web.er.usgs.gov/reports/annsum/vol40/cu/harrison.htm; Elfrink, Neil, “Gujarat Analog Response,” Archives of Central U.S. Earthquake Hazard MailList, March 21, 2001, http://clifty.com/hazard/archives/1010302-021954.html; Guccione, Margaret, “Re: ‘Gujarat Analog,’” Archives of Central U.S. Earthquake Hazard MailList, Feb 16, 2001, http://clifty.com/hazard/archives/1010216-111758.html.

Mississippi River Barge Traffic Slowed or Stopped near Greenville


 “Spanish Moss just below No. 82. This is a beautiful right hand bend forming three-fourths of a regular circle of about eight miles in length.

“The left had shore around this bend is clothed with willows and sand bars. Near the lower end of the bend the river in its highest state become much crowded together, not being more than a third of a mile in breadth, consequently very deep and rapid, and full of boils or swells, but no way dangerous.

“This settlement, of four small cabins, occupied by one Indian, one French, and two American families, having as many corn patches of three or four acres to each house, is at the right hand point immediately below the Spanish Moss bend, and a little above the head of No. 83. The bank here is pretty high, but I fear the overflowings of 1813 have destroyed all present attempts to continue the settlement. The peach tree leaves were green here on the 21st of December 1812, through the fall had been unusually cold and early, and the winter afterwards more severe than had been witnessed in 20 years.

“Just above the settlement you run nearly east, and three miles below it as nearly west.” –Zadok Cramer, 1814[i]

On Monday, August 20 a barge ran aground on the Lower Mississippi south of Greenville, Mississippi. The U.S.  Coast Guard closed the river to barge traffic, but reopened it 12 hours later to slow-moving southbound traffic, alternating with slow-moving north bound traffic, with the Coasties acting as traffic cop. There is history behind these problems at Greenville.

In the wake of the Flood of 1927, which drowned the Lower Mississippi alluvial valley from wall to wall, Congress authorized the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project in the Flood Control Act of 1927. The project standardized and raised the levees between Cape Girardeau, Missouri and Venice, Louisiana. It allowed reservoirs on the headwater tributaries of the Mississippi (Table Rock Lake on the White, Clearwater Lake on the Black, Wappello Lake on the St. Francis, all in Missouri; Arkabutla Lake on the Coldwater, Grenada Lake on the Yazoo, Sardis Lake on the Little Tallachatchie, and Enid Lake on the Tallachatchie, all in Mississippi) to retain flood waters in the uplands until the Mississippi could hold them. On the other hand, water released from the reservoirs during a drought can raise the level of the river. It created the New Madrid, Atchafalaya and Bonnet Carre Floodways (all used during last years flood) to siphon off floodwater, and in the case of the Atchafalaya and Bonnet Carre carry it to the Gulf of Mexico without ever returning it to the Mississippi. Finally, it authorized cutoffs across point bars to shorten the river and speed floodwater downstream. Therein lie our current problems on the Mississippi near Greenville.

The grey line follows the old Greenville Bends.

From the Mississippi: A Visual Biography Draft: Rowdy Bend, Miller Bend, Spanish Moss Bend, and Bachelor Bend: the river zigged and zagged between Arkansas City and Greenville, Mississippi. River pilots called them the Greenville Bends. They were shallow and meandered through erosion-resistant and cohesive clay. The Corps of Engineers worked for years to prevent the river from cutting new channels across the point bars that formed them, only to have General Harley Ferguson include them in his cutoffs to shorten the river and speed floods downstream.

Follow the thin blue line to understand the Greenville Bends and Point Bars across which General Ferguson made his cutoffs.

A meandering river works hard to maintain a fairly constant length. Natural cutoffs are its means. When the river becomes too long and its slope too flat, its searches out a steeper, more efficient slope. It makes a cutoff across the narrow neck of a point bar or by forming a chute across a wider part of the point bar. Once the river makes a cutoff, the speed and the slope of the river above the cutoff increase, it erodes its banks and its bed, adding to the load of sediment it carries. Below the cutoff the river remains unchanged. It moves slowly down a shallow slope, forcing the river speeding through the cutoff to slow down and deposit its sediment downstream of the cutoff, creating a new sand bar, around which the river will meander, restoring its length. In its natural state the Lower Mississippi made a cutoff once every seven to ten years. After it made a cutoff, the river took thirty to eighty years to recover and regain its width, its bar sequence, and its flow regimen.

Before Ferguson made his cutoffs, the average length of the Lower Mississippi River was about 1080 miles. It varied up and down as the river made cutoffs and created bars, but it always came back to the average. Ferguson lopped off 116 miles off the average in the 330 miles between the mouth of the Arkansas and the mouth of the Red River.

It was a mere fifteen land miles between the head of Rowdy Bend, the first Greenville bend, and the toe of Bachelor Bend, the last, but fifty miles by river. After 1880 the river added seven miles in the bends as it shaved sediment off the concave bends, deposited it on the head of the point bars, and threatened to chew away the levees on both banks. The Corps spent much time and money building revetments to stop the river’s meander at Rowdy Bend and Bachelor Bend. And, as Cramer noted, the river slowed and pooled in the bends at flood time, acting like a dam. Floodwaters back up to Arkansas City. In Ferguson’s view the bends had to go. Bachelor Bend, on which the City of Greenville is located, volunteered to go first. That was not Ferguson’s plan.[ii]

Bachelor Bend and Point Chicot aka Lake Ferguson north of Greenville

Ferguson only planned two cutoffs at the Greenville Bends and Bachelor Bend was not one of them. The bendway wrapped itself around Point Chicot. In 1882 the distance across the neck of the point was 5,500 feet, just over a mile. Within twenty years the distance had narrowed to 3,500. The Corps of Engineers constructed a protective dike, 6,250 feet long, across the axis of the neck. The Mississippi continued to scour the neck, reducing the distance across it to 2,600 feet by 1910. The Corps extended the dike a half mile. The Floods of 1922, 1927, and 1929 scoured a trench across the neck. The Corps responded with a mile-long permeable dike. The river broke through the new dike on July 8, 1933, deepened the trench, and forced Ferguson to move up his plans to take out the Greenville Bends by two years.

Spanish Moss Bend and Carter Point

While the river, in 1933, did not develop a new channel across Point Chicot, its elevation was three and a half feet higher on the upstream side of the point than the downstream side. The next flood could ream an uncontrolled cutoff through the point. That the river chose the place for the cut across Point Chicot and not the general added to his worries.  Therefore, to align the cut across Tarpley Neck to eliminate Spanish Moss Bend, and the cut across Ashbrook Point to eliminate Rowdy Bend with the river’s cut at Point Chicot, and to incorporate Miller Bend between the two artificial cuts, Ferguson had to redraw his plans.

Lake Ferguson Marina. Greenville’s Casino floats on Lake Ferguson, but goes no where.

Ferguson and his engineers finished the work the river had started across Point Chicot and aligned it properly in 1933, leaving Greenville on the shores of Lake Ferguson, old Bachelor Bend. When they finished the new channel, called the Leland Cutoff, carried fifty percent of the flow during the low-water season in 1933.

The Mississippi south of Greenville at the Leland Cutoff

The Corps started work on the lower end of Tarpley Cutoff in January 1935 directly opposite the head of the Leland Cutoff and completed it on Easter Sunday in April just as the crest of the 1935 flood streamed past Greenville. The cut, through sandy soil, was 13,000 long, 250 to 300 feet wide, and forty feet deep. Its slope was five times greater than the slope around Spanish Moss Bend. The new channel developed rapidly, but because the slope was steep and the soil sandy, the river flowed in a braided pattern and deposited many sandbars at the foot of Tarpley Cutoff.

The sinuosity of the old Greenville Bends allowed the Mississippi fifty-three miles to negotiate the steep grade between the top of Askbrook Cutoff and the foot of Leland Cutoff. The meandering channel gave the river a place to deposit its sediment: on Ashbrook Point, Point Comfort, Carter Point, and Point Chicot. Ferguson made his cutoffs and created a relatively straight, wide channel, but the steep grade remained and caused all kinds of problems for the engineers.

Tarpley Cutoff above Greenville

Almost as soon as it opened up, a sand bar formed at the mouth of the Tarpley Cutoff. The Corps dredged it away with a pump dredge only to have it form again two years later. Year in and year out the Corps dredged from the top of Ashbrook Cutoff to the foot of Leland Cutoff, but could not create a reliable navigation channel. The steep grade and the clay bed never allowed the river to adjust its slope or scour a deep channel. Nor could the river manage its sediment load through the wide channel that had a constant slope of a half-foot per mile.

Beginning in 1963 the Corps laid revetments on the banks to discourage scour and built training dikes to catch sediment and lock in the channel, reducing the need for so much dredging. But, still the river deposited sediment in the navigation channel, which shifted constantly, leading one potamologist to suggest the solution to the Greenville Bends was to use the training structures to create a sinuous channel that would allow the river to meander and handle its sediment the old way, by shaving it off the concave bends and depositing it on the convex bends.[iii]

Thus during the drought of 2012, when the river ran very low, barges ran aground and traffic backed up on the Lower Mississippi south of the Leland Cutoff at Greenville, Mississippi.

[i]             Cramer, 200.

[ii]             Winkley, Brian 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, 3-10; Camillo and Pearcy, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, http://www.mvd.usace.army.mil/mrc/Upon_There_Shoulders/Chapter11.htm.

[iii]             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, 50-69; Schumm, Stanley, and Brinkley, Brien T., “The Variability of Large Alluvial Rivers, New York: American Society of Civil Engineers, 1994, 66-70; Smith, Lawson M., and Winkley, Brien R., “The Response of the Lower Mississippi River to River Engineering,” Engineering Geology, 1996, 441-442.

Mardi Gras Pass: Keep it or Dam It

Mississippi River Ridge at Bohemia

While folks partied in the streets of New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, the Mississippi River gave the State of Louisiana a gift, a freebie. The river broke through the low ridge at Bohemia, south of the end of the Main Line levee, and began pouring sediment into Breton Sound to the east. The river is doing for free what the state would have the Federal Government pay $50 billion over 50 years to rebuild barrier island and to divert the Mississippi to Breton Sound on the east and the Barataria Basin on the west. State engineers already had a plan on the books to create a similar diversion into Breton Sound a mere mile from the Bohemia siphon, where the breach occurred.

Bohemia Siphon along the Mississippi

The site of the breech was the old, inoperable siphon, designed to deliver fresh water from the river to the wetlands in the sound. The siphon opens onto a spillway, created in 1924 as a means of relieving flooding in New Orleans. However, this spillway is 45 miles south of New Orleans. After the Flood of 1927 the Bonne Carre Spillway and the Achafalaya and Morganza Spillways were design to siphon water from a flood Mississippi before it reached New Orleans.

Sites of Bohemia Siphon and the Oil Facility on the End of the Road on the Mississippi Ridge

Now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given Houston-based Eland/Sundown Energy permission to seal the crevasse, dam it in order to rebuild the road to their work facility not more than two or three miles down the road, where it ends at a gate to its yard.

Right now the Mississippi is low, very low and the spillway is delivery fresh water and sediment at a much slower rate than the 50,000 cubic feet per second the state-designed spillway would flow. But water and sediment is flowing to Breton Sound. It is a gift from the Flood of 2011. The river will rise again, flood, and spill more water through the breach, enlarging it and sending more water and sediment to the Bohemia Wildlife Management Area and Breton Sound.

Breton Sound at the Bohemia State Wildlife Management Area just off Pointe a la Hache

In 2005 Katrina roared across the Mississippi south of the siphon, and tore north through Breton Sound and Lake Borgne tearing up the wetlands and busting through the levees that protected St. Bernard Parish, trashing the towns there. Then it tore across the wetlands that protects that lovely string of towns on the the State of  Mississippi coast–Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Gulf Port, and Biloxi–and destroyed them. Had those wetlands in Breton Sound been in tact, Katrina would not have been as devastating. Never mind what happened after it arrived in Lake Pontchartrain, washed into the canals that drain every drop of water that falls on New Orleans, and collapsed the levees that contained them, flooding the city.

  •  (quintascott.wordpress.com)

TheEadsBridge.com: A new web site and a new approach to marketing photographs

The Eads Bridge with Coal Barge at TheEadsBridge.com

My interest in the Mississippi River goes back to fifth grade, when a remarkable teacher, Ruth Ferris, taught me, my classmates, and several generations of fifth graders about the river, and left us all with a deep appreciation of “The Strong Brown God.”

Back in the 1970s I was the photo editor of a small bi-weekly newspaper in St. Louis. Editorial meetings were informal affairs. No one was really in charge. We reached decisions about what to publish by consensus and then picked what we wanted to write about. For the issue on the Mississippi I wanted to photograph the train deck of the Eads Bridge. I had seen a Charles Guggenheim’s film, made for Laclede Gas, that took the viewer across the train deck, the inside of the great steel arch bridge. I wanted to go there. I called up Terminal Railroad, the owner of the bridge, made arrangements to do so, and made the first of a series of photographs of the structure of the bridge. I also made friends with the guardian of the bridge, who would let me down on the deck at will, something that would never be allowed today.

I published the first photographs of the bridge under the title, “Captain Eads’ Erector Set,” based on my husband’s observation of the photographs. Then I pulled the images together into a book, The Eads Bridge: Photographic Essay by Quinta Scott: Historical Appraisal by Howard S. Miller.

Today I put up a new web site, TheEadsBridge.com,  in order to market images I made of the Eads Bridge for my book:  I will be marketing them one at a time, putting up a new one every month or so. Visit over and over.

Robert M. Vogel, Curator at the Smithsonian Institution said, “The Eads Bridge photographs are as comprehensive but artistic a graphic treatment of a major structure as I’ve ever seen. They could fairly be regarded as definitive, as on par with the best architectural-structural photography I know of.”
George McCue, Architectural Critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said, “Scott’s photographs of the intricate structure of the Eads Bridge are like dissections of the muscles of a behemouth, but they are also a kind of American poetry.”
Copyright © 2011, Quinta Scott, Photographer. All Rights Reserved.

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.