Sunday, August 13, 2006

Mississippi River: Ally not Enemy

In the past year I have been learning (and in some cases relearning)
more about the Mississippi River and its contribution to the state of
Louisiana and the USA in general. I have read translations of the
reports from deSoto's expedition from the flood of 1543 and reviewed
the founding of New Orleans in 1718. I've updated my knowledge of
the oil-bearing strata that lies under Louisiana and its offshore. I've
read piles of papers and reports on subsidence and also how the river
built south Louisiana in the last 5000 years. Last summer (before
Katrina) I reread John Barry's "Rising Tide" in preparation for a
lecture on the 1927 flood in the Natural Hazards course I teach. I
am probably as well informed on this subject as I have ever been
in my entire life.

And what keeps hitting me is how much the Mississippi River
has contributed to Louisiana and the USA. In some ways it
defines us. It's alluvial soils feed millions here and its water brings
food to millions more across the world. The growth of the delta has
not only created much of south Louisiana but the overlapping marsh,
river and marine deposits atop a semi-fluid salt layer created a near
perfect superposition of petroleum source/reservoir rocks and
wonderfully complex traps to hold them in (yeah, I have a thing for
3D seismic). The marsh of delta nourishes an amazingly fertile
fishery. What not to like about the Mississippi River?

And yet we hide it behind levees and let its waters reach the sea in
only a few restricted places. We treat it like a wild beast that needs
to be tamed and kept in a cage. We send most of its life-bearing
water and silt into the deep Gulf of Mexico.

We need to start treating the Mississippi River as a friend and ally,
as one of the greatest gifts God has given to the State of Louisiana
and the nation as a whole. Yes, it is a wild thing and needs to be
respected as such. But we need to restore as many of its natural
rhythms as possible and see to it that it works in our favor as it
should. Some people will have to give up where they live so the river
can flow there again. Some will have to deal with uncertainity, not
knowing what the delta will look like after a big spring flood. But
we'll gain far more than we will lose.