A spectacular opinion piece ran in the Times-Picayune last Friday (thanks, Marcus!). In The river wild, Bob Marshall writes,
What many coastal scientists know, but are afraid to say publicly, is that we are almost out of options. The Gulf has moved so much closer to our back doors that there now remains only one real hope for a long-term future on the delta of the Mississippi River: Let the river go.
The federal government must claim eminent domain on everything south of U.S. 90, then begin managing it as an ecosystem with one priority: Rebuilding land faster than it’s being lost to the Gulf.
Wow. Does anybody but me think there’s absolutely no chance that such a thing could happen? Imagine the uproar and outcry!
While Polimom sees exactly what Marshall is talking about, I think that in the long run, this would also be a futile effort – because the River really doesn’t want to go there, either. What the Mississippi wants to do, unfortunately, is bypass southeastern Louisiana altogether and go through the Atchafalaya. In fact, it’s been pushing hard to shift itself, and for many years, man has been holding nature – against its will.
We’ve been playing God, so to speak. From Wikipedia:
Through a natural process known as deltaic switching the lower Mississippi River has shifted its final course to the ocean every thousand years or so. This occurs because the deposits of silt and sediment raise the river’s level causing it to eventually find a steeper route to the Gulf of Mexico. The abandoned distributary diminishes in volume and forms what are known as bayous. This process has, over the past 5,000 years, caused the coastline of south Louisiana to advance gulfward from 15 to 50 miles.
We’re WAY overdue for the natural shift of the River from its current course, but as this 2005 New Yorker article points out,
For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature.
We can tinker with this or that until we’re blue in the face, but ultimately, the forces of the natural planet — Mother Nature — are stronger.
What would happen to Louisiana if the Mississippi River was permitted to follow its natural course?
Nobody will like this answer: Baton Rouge and New Orleans would become defunct, at least as major players. Baton Rouge could likely survive by dredging canals, given its proximity to the Atchafalaya, but New Orleans would probably go the way of the ancient Kingdom of Ur.
However the city started to decline from around 550 BC and was no longer inhabited after about 500 BC, perhaps owing to drought, changing river patterns, and the silting of the outlet to the Persian Gulf.
Mother Nature does not seem to have a permanent place for New Orleans in her plans, anymore than she did for Ur. We can prolong the life of this gem, though, for quite a while yet – certainly through my daughter’s lifetime, and perhaps her grandchildren’s – but only if we make difficult choices now.
All of the preservation tactics, however, require sacrifices that people will not want to make. Communities below Hwy 90 will resist suggestions like Bob Marshall’s, just as NOLA’s “Lowlands” – Lakeview, Gentilly, the Ninth Ward – have resisted the thought of their neighborhoods as poorly conceived ideas in the first place. People are simply unable to grasp the fact that Mother Nature will ultimately win this war, unless we work with, instead of against, her.
Myself, I think I’m going to bring my daughter to visit New Orleans as often as I can, so that she has something real to tell her children, rather than having them read about it someday in Wikipedia: the lost city of New Orleans, sacrificed to the attempts of man to imitate the gods.