Planning for our special Mississippi River issue began almost a year ago, months before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck. I wish we could commend ourselves for such prescience, but to be honest, many others had beaten us to the punch. They include Chris Hallowell, author of the widely acclaimed Holding Back the Sea, which five years ago predicted the massive destruction that could result from a hurricane hitting New Orleans and Louisiana. We dispatched Chris to the area in July to update his reporting and, last fall, to update it once again. Surveying the terrible wreckage, he recognized a glaring irony about the hurricanes. “The ensuing disaster that they caused is probably the best catalyst available to inspire the necessary commitment, both locally and nationally, though it is slow in coming,” he writes in “A Mighty Challenge.” “The storms’ havoc has made sure that the rest of the country looks upon south Louisiana and the entire Mississippi in a new light.”

In fact, one of our objectives in this issue is to examine the entire river, the northern part as well as the southern. Bruce Reid, director of Audubon’s Lower Mississippi River programs and a longtime environmental reporter in his former life, frames the context: “We need to manage the whole river as a living system. Whether managing habitat for birds, water quality, or the Dead Zone, all parts are related.”

This interconnectedness underpins the many solutions offered in the following pages. Frank Graham, author of “Warning Signs,” explores ways to improve agricultural practices so that toxic runoff from farms in the Upper Midwest doesn’t contribute to the so-called Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, more than a thousand miles away. Frank considers his ordeal of being caught by Katrina while on assignment the most harrowing experience of his 38-year career at Audubon. But he returned home with a renewed respect for the Mississippi’s ineffable beauty and a “clear” message he wanted to impart: “There ought to be more to the river than using it to float barges and drain human waste.”

Ted Williams is as well equipped to explain what ails the Mississippi and how to fix it as just about any reporter in the country, having spent more than a quarter-century covering the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ costly assortment of dike, dam, and channel projects. By the time he filed his dispatches from Louisiana (“America’s River,” and “The Last Line of Defense”), Ted came to a somewhat surprising conclusion. The restoration of Louisiana’s wetlands—“the only flood protection that ever worked,” he writes—is likely to happen. Of course, it will take a herculean engineering effort by the Corps to “unmake its own mess” and a recognition from Congress of the need to “seriously consider using the Corps as something other than a conduit for pumping pork.” Still, hope exists.

As President George W. Bush toured New Orleans in March, seething residents held aloft many placards, including one that read, “Where’s My Government?” It remains to be seen if the politicians who have dedicated much of their careers to demonizing government are up to the task of using it as an instrument for good to save the Mississippi. Judging from the protest signs and polls, Katrina and Rita may have left them no choice.

© 2006 National Audubon Society

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