>>Saving the Mississippi/Overview

A Mighty Challenge

Last summer few people outside of Louisiana, or even in it, knew that every year the state loses more than 15,000 acres of protective, productive coastal wetlands or that a Dead Zone as big as New Jersey forms in the Gulf of Mexico. Then Katrina and Rita struck, bringing devastation, and a new commitment to tackle the Mississippi River’s many problems. Still, any grand fix must take into account the whole river, from top to bottom, while balancing the competing interests pulling it apart.

By Christopher Hallowell


Last September 24, Hurricane Rita’s nine-foot-high storm surge smashed through the levee at Wonder Lake. The barrier had been built to protect the bayou town of Montegut, whose residents live near the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. The effort failed; a torrent of muck burst forth, coating everything in its path—homes, cars, boats. When I visited Monte-gut a week later, water was still coursing through the breach. Standing atop the levee near a 50-yard-long break, I watched as big yellow helicopters whirred overhead, dangling 3,000-pound sandbags. Workers had been trying to stem the flow for a couple of days.

An old man stood beside me, staring in disbelief—like the rest of America at the time—at a slice of the drama and tragedy that is still unfolding across south Louisiana. He leaned on a cane, white shock of hair all askew. He introduced himself as Mr. Joe—that’s all—and told me he used to trap fur animals here: muskrat, mink, an occasional otter. In Cajunized English he summarized the events that led to the calamity before our eyes. When he was a boy “comin’ up” to adulthood, he said, Wonder Lake was “not’ing but a little bitty pond in da marsh, an’ then them oil fellas dug canals everywhere and pretty soon you got salt and storms comin’ here an’ makin’ dat lake big, big. Dat’s jus’ foolish, dat is. Dey otta pump some mud in here and save the marsh, mais yah.” If you want to know something about why south Louisiana and parts of Mississippi got tossed around like a waterlogged rag doll, talk to people like Mr. Joe.

“We have made a difficult choice, engineering the river for both commerce and the ecosystem. But here we are lucky. Further south the river was engineered for commerce only.”

Seven years earlier and only a few miles away in the town of Thibodaux, I attended a conference billed as a National Coastal Wetlands Summit and presided over by Billy Tauzin, then a U.S. representative from Louisiana. He hoped to call national attention to the ongoing loss of the coastal wetlands and the threat that posed for the state. Hurricane Georges had passed through a few weeks earlier, sparing New Orleans by 40 miles and smacking into Mississippi and Alabama on a course not dissimilar to the one Katrina would one day take. People were scared. Talk about when the Big One would strike filled the auditorium at Nicholls State University.

The summit’s participants ranged from Governor Mike Foster to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brass to shrimpers and oystermen to a bevy of schoolchildren. The kids were marched onstage to read letters they had written to President Bill Clinton, asking him to halt the deterioration of the wetlands. One eighth grader read: “Mr. President, if we don’t stop this erosion process right now, you know where we will be. How would you like it if you lost an area the size of Rhode Island in your backyard every year?”

That “erosion process” was the same one Mr. Joe atop the levee had described. For years Louisiana’s Gulf Coast has been losing its wetlands—about 2 million acres since the French founded New Orleans in 1718. Roughly 3.6 million acres remain—about 40 percent of the entire country’s coastal wetlands—but today they are disappearing at the rate of more than 15,000 acres per year. Some of the loss is due to natural subsidence of this soft land, which allows the Gulf’s waters to creep inland. But much of it is due to human activity. U.S. Geological Survey maps indicate that about 36 percent of the loss is due to the dredging of canals through the wetlands by the oil industry. The canals’ soft banks erode; that, in turn, provides easier access for storm surges that destroy the marsh and for salt water that kills freshwater vegetation, resulting in raw mudflats. Over the years these actions have altered places like Wonder Lake, which changed from a “little bitty pond” to a formidable body of water.

The destruction goes far beyond the loss of wetlands. South Louisiana is resource-rich: 20 to 25 percent of our seafood comes out of the Gulf, most of it nurtured in the protective crevices and rivulets of the wetlands. Further, 20 percent of the country’s natural gas and 25 percent of its oil travels from offshore wells to refineries through pipelines nestled in the wetlands’ muck. As the deterioration continues, this infrastructure becomes more vulnerable to the ravages of storm surges.

Beyond erosion, a larger reason for the wetlands’ destruction, however, is the leveeing of the Mississippi River. Following the great 1927 Mississippi River flood, which killed more than 1,000 people and displaced up to a million others, the decision to imprison the lower river behind levees prevented its spring floodwaters from enriching the adjacent marshes with sediment and nutrients. Now these marshes are literally starving and compacting as their soft fabric—from roots to soil to peat—dries out.

Anytime you look at south Louisiana’s wetlands problem, you have to consider the entire Mississippi River and its tributaries. Yet while there is now an enormous emphasis on the future of Louisiana’s diminished wetlands and their ability to dampen hurricane surges, the role of the Mississippi in forming this bountiful land is not so acknowledged. The river nurtured these marshes over the past 5,000 years with topsoil carried from Minnesota, from Colorado, from western New York State—from more than 40 percent of the contiguous United States plus parts of southern Canada. Over those millennia the river varied its course six times as it neared the Gulf, sprawling its sediment- carrying channels across much of the breadth of what is now south Louisiana, its various deltas building 5 million acres of marsh—freshwater, brackish, and salt, depending on their proximity to the coast.

It is through this history of sediment—the foundation of America—that the lower and upper Mississippi River (with the approximate dividing point being Cairo, Illinois) are inextricably linked into one sprawling ecosystem. At Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, where the river rises, its waters are crystalline. Some 200 miles downstream, around the Twin Cities, the sediment load turns the water into a muddy, overcast gray, which prevails all the way to the Gulf. It is this sediment that used to flood into Louisiana’s wetlands each spring, nourishing them and accumulating their substance. No longer. Now sand, clay, and silt shoot out into the Gulf of Mexico, carrying with them tons of nitrogen and phosphorous drained from the corn and soybean farms upstream to create what has come to be known as the “Dead Zone.” 

The upstream part of this larger story concerns the manipulation of the river over decades, which has changed it from a meandering imprint with a will of its own into something less that, though still majestic, is suffering. Half of the Mississippi’s former floodplain—encompassing marshes, grasslands, and forests—is now planted in corn or soybeans or used for grazing. More than 80 percent of the floodplain between Cairo and Alton, Illinois, is behind levees. There are consequences beyond the loss of habitat diversity, including the disappearance of filtering wetlands that trap agricultural contaminants; the rapid runoff from floodplain into river and the resulting erosion; and the diminishment of native vegetation. Channelization of the river to maintain a nine-foot depth (mandated by Congress) south of the Twin Cities requires that some 10 million cubic yards of material is dredged annually and dumped on the floodplain at 150 sites. The construction of wing dams jutting off either bank further channels the current, and reduces the flow into backwater areas.


Of all the manipulations, dams and their locks have changed the river the most. There are 29 of them on the Mississippi, most constructed in the 1930s and administered by the Army Corps of Engineers to hold water back and assure that during summer droughts the river is deep enough for barges. Water collects upriver from each dam, in what are euphemistically referred to as “pools.” Hardly backyard pools, though. Lake Pepin, for instance, south of St. Paul, Minnesota, is 44 miles long and a couple of miles wide; most pools are shorter, 25 to 30-plus miles long. The debate that rages around them is almost palpable. All are open-water stretches of river too deep for the aquatic plant or animal life that 40 percent of migrating waterfowl in North America rely on for nourishment. 

“What we have here is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. What is most valuable to the people is the least cared for, and we have to change that as fast as we can. If we lose one more cubic yard of marsh, someone should be electrocuted.”

The dams have also blocked the passage of fish. Studies have documented the compromised migration and spawning of such Mississippi River species as American eel, buffalofish, catfish, drum, gar, paddlefish, shad, skipjack, sauger, and sturgeon.

The biggest alteration to the river from the dams, however, comes from sedimentation. Each dam traps silt and sand, which gradually clog backwater areas and eliminate the lesser channels that meander on either side of the main river in marvelous mazes of fish and wildlife habitat. “No one knew what would happen when the dams were built,” says Dan McGuiness, director of Audubon’s Upper Mississippi River Campaign. “From the Twin Cities down to St. Louis, there is too much sedimentation. From St. Louis down, there’s not enough sedimentation.”

Go out into a backwater channel and the damage becomes apparent. The Menominee Slough, across the river from Dubuque, Iowa, is typical. Although the slough is well upstream from lock and dam No. 12, it is in such quiet waters that too much of the river’s sediment settles. The flooding of these areas and their abutting woodlands occurs ever more frequently as waterways fill in, and that has a profound influence on tree species, knocking out green ash, pin oak, elm, and hackberry, and favoring the more water-tolerant silver maple. Following the gradual narrowing of tree diversity is a loss of wildlife diversity as food sources, shelter, and nesting sites disappear. 

There is more than the topsoil of America in the river’s sediment; there is also the debris of America. Late one afternoon last July, Dan McGuiness and I were motoring upstream near the Twin Cities when the sky burst open with torrents of warm rain along with wilting thunder and lightning as blinding as a photographer’s strobe. Near us a storm sewer began to gush, then turned into a geyser shooting street runoff from St. Paul’s suburbs, sullying the river’s quasi-clarity with debris. McGuiness told me he has seen plastic bottles shoot from this outfall like cannonballs. Across the river another storm sewer started spewing out volumes of murky suburban runoff.

Of all the contaminants that course down the Mississippi— PCBs, mercury, treated sewage—nutrient-rich fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides in agricultural runoff are the most controversial for their effect at the river’s mouth. Every spring runoff carries nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers used on corn and soybean fields and from animal manure into the Gulf, helping to create the Dead Zone. Some farmland in the Upper Mississippi River basin—which includes the river from its headwaters to Cairo, Illinois—is annually saturated with up to 27 tons of fertilizer per square mile. Runoff from this five-state region accounts for more than 30 percent of the nitrogen carried by the river to the Gulf.

Little can live in the Dead Zone, which at times has covered 8,000 square miles—an area larger than New Jersey—in a swath of the Gulf from the Mississippi’s mouth west along the Texas coast. The massive influx of nutrients causes huge algal blooms to flourish. When the billions of algal cells die and drift to the bottom, bacteria devour them, depleting the available oxygen. Any life unable to move fast dies fast.

“I call this issue the Berlin Wall of the Gulf,” said Donald Lirette, a shrimp fisherman and president of the Terrebonne Fishermen’s Organization, in Dulac, Louisiana. “There have been times when all I could find out there were dead shrimp. I wanted to know why.”

Lirette hoped that a meeting between farmers from the north and shrimp fishermen from Louisiana would allow the two sides to understand each other. Through the auspices of the Mississippi River Basin Alliance, an environmental organization in St. Paul, a dozen corn farmers from the Midwest visited south Louisiana early in February 2000 during Mardi Gras. They were greeted by a float made up as a giant cornhusk. The farmers, according to Lirette, joked irreverently, observing, “Well, we thought we were using too much fertilizer.”


The ice broken, Lirette and a gaggle of shrimpers later traveled to Minnesota to meet corn farmers and see for themselves how fertilizers were used. The result was an education. “I asked a farmer why he couldn’t put in a retention pond to receive fertilizer runoff and then irrigate his fields with the water,” Lirette told me. “He liked the idea and got a grant to try it.”

“We farmers are always being compared to the way we were 20 or 30 years ago,” says Warren Formo, a corn farmer and program manager for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “We try to be better stewards of the land now, but we know our efforts won’t show up immediately.”

The means are visible, though, in the cornfields around Shakopee, in south-central Minnesota. There buffer strips of woodlands that absorb runoff separate fields undulating to the horizon. Gullies and low-lying areas are left uncultivated for the same purpose. Even planting, growing, and harvesting techniques are changing. Tractors are equipped with caterpillar treads rather than wheels to reduce compacting soft earth, which could increase surface runoff. Some farmers employ global positioning systems to pinpoint where fertilizers are most needed. Pig manure from the area’s many hog farms, a longtime pollution source, is increasingly being spread on fields in place of chemical fertilizers instead of merely accumulating outside hog barns. The end result: More fertilizer stays in place, and runoff is reduced.


As these cases illustrate, the irony of the Mississippi River’s ills is that there are remedies available. Nancy Rabelais, a hypoxia expert and executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, at the edge of the Gulf, points out that “studies show that if you reduce chemical fertilizer 12 to 14 percent, the discharge of nitrates will be 30 percent less in the Gulf, and there will be no crop loss.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has almost 70 projects planned or in various stages along the Upper Mississippi in an attempt to re-create the river’s natural characteristics and rhythms. Where sediment is filling backwater channels, dredging is under way to restore depth and improve water clarity to enhance fish habitat. Intentional levee breaks restore water flow between the river and its floodplain. The water levels in pools can be manipulated to imitate spring and fall floods and summer low-water periods. Exposed mudflats allow bursts of vegetation that, when the flats are reflooded, provide food and shelter for migrating waterfowl. Dredged material can be used to re-create islands that once segmented the river’s course into braided channels. Fish ladders would help maintain stocks.

“We have made a difficult choice, engineering the river for both commerce and the ecosystem,” says Dan McGuinness. “But here we are lucky. Further south, the river was engineered for commerce only.”

From St. Louis to Venice, Louisiana—more than half the river’s length—channels, backwaters, and general majesty have been replaced by a leveed trough bordered by farmland and, farther south, by petrochemical plants. Not much can escape this sluiceway, certainly not the sediment necessary to replenish Louisiana’s wetlands.

The matter of sediment has long been a subject of debate in south Louisiana, the stuff of endless meetings and studies about how to get it from the compromised Mississippi into the wetlands. The arrival of Katrina and Rita galvanized that discourse. Before last year’s hurricanes, a consensus had finally been reached that all the arguing about how to save the wetlands was not saving them. The result was a document entitled Coast 2050—a blueprint for stabilizing wetlands loss that was signed on to by state officials, municipalities, fishermen, and landowners. Louisiana had finally done its part by coming up with a respectable plan to save its coast. “This was our last chance to save these wetlands,” Kerry St. Pé, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, a region that loses 18 square miles of wetlands each year, told me last fall. “I pray that we are given the opportunity now to do the right thing.”

While there is now an enormous emphasis on the future of Louisiana’s diminished wetlands and their ability to dampen hurricane surges, the role of the Mississippi in forming this bountiful land is not so acknowledged. 

The Army Corps of Engineers calculated the plan would cost $15 billion to $20 billion. The Bush administration said no to footing the bill. But just before Katrina struck, it did agree to provide $1.9 billion over 10 years—far less than the $4 billion the federal government allocated in 2000 for the remediation of the Florida Everglades. (Florida is slated to contribute another $4 billion to the Everglades restoration.)

The $1.9 billion for Louisiana is, of course, too little too late. The influential National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded last November that some of the coast is so eroded and disappearing so fast that efforts to save it should be abandoned. People and communities in these areas, specifically the wetlands to the east of the Mississippi’s birdsfoot delta, will have to be uprooted and moved. Traditional occupations and local histories will surely disappear.


There are two ways to rebuild the wetlands, both studied and already implemented piecemeal. The first, which dates back to 1991, is to divert sediment-bearing water from the Mississippi into the marsh through siphons or gated concrete structures in the levees in an attempt to simulate the natural rhythms of the river. These structures will require years of operation before they will have deposited enough sediment to create any significant amount of marsh. The latest structure—still in preliminary design—is called the Third Delta Channel, a 100-mile-long conduit from the Mississippi south of the town of Donaldsonville that would carry 300,000 cubic feet of water per second into Barataria and Terrebonne bays. The project would cost $2 billion to $3 billion and would require at least 30 years of operation to replenish the wetlands.

“We do not have 30 years,” says St. Pé. “What we have here is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. What is most valuable to the people is the least cared for, and we have to change that as fast as we can. If we lose one more cubic yard of marsh, someone should be electrocuted.” 

The other way of restoration, or at least stabilization, is kind of obvious: Take sediment that the Mississippi has dumped into the Gulf for thousands of years and pump it onto fragmented wetlands, a last-gasp effort to shore up what is about to be lost. The results are immediate, as can be seen just north of Port Fourchon, on the edge of the Gulf and at the mouth of Bayou LaFourche. There two ridges of sediment arch over the surrounding marsh like giant mole furrows. Five feet high, 30 feet wide, and a few hundred feet long, they are marsh in the making. The sediment was dredged a year ago from channels around the bustling port—the Gulf’s major offshore oil supply hub. With time and erosion, the ridges will flatten out and meld into the marsh. Volunteers planted grasses and tiny live oaks to stabilize the material, though just a few months after the ridges were created, naturally deposited seeds were beginning to sprout.

Actually, sediment to stabilize the entire coast would not have to come from offshore. It could come from the river itself. “Right now we dredge enough sediment to offset projected coastal wetlands loss,” says Larry Banks, chief of the Watershed Division for the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, Mississippi. That amounts to about 70 million cubic yards of sediment a year, enough to reclaim 10 square miles of wetlands, the somewhat arbitrarily derived annual loss projected in future years, given the past sporadic efforts to restore the wetlands.

The irony is calamitous. For years the Corps has dredged enormous amounts of material from the river’s bottom to maintain navigation. Most has been pumped into side channels. Why the waste? “It has been the Corps’ purpose to get this material out of the way so ships can get by,” explains Banks. “The Corps has never received authorization or a budget to use it on the wetlands.” 

Importing sediment to bolster wetlands is the closest thing yet to the magic bullet people in coastal restoration yearn for. But other measures can be used. An obvious one is to plug the many canals that cross the marsh, put there long ago by the oil industry. That would mean defying these influential companies—not something that often happens in Louisiana. Some navigation canals could be filled in, or gates to control both storm surges and boat traffic could be installed across the canals. Barrier islands just offshore need to be replenished and reinforced so that they can help absorb storm surges.
It is another irony of the Katrina–Rita disaster that measures to protect New Orleans, and, in fact, most of coastal south Louisiana, were designed years ago. They were never implemented, for the same reasons that sediment was never diverted to the wetlands—cost, politics, endless discussion and debate—and in the end there was little to show. Now a 1964 plan to build gates to close Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf and hurricane surges has been resurrected by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. So, too, are plans to upgrade to hurricane Category 5 specifications a piecemeal levee system that, when completed, would stretch 300 miles from east of the lake to the Texas border.

The mayhem caused by Katrina and Rita and the aftermath of massive confusion and government bungling of relief efforts have finally begun to yield to increasing federal support. To date Congress has provided $106 billion toward recovery efforts. An additional $100 million is destined for wetlands restoration that will help protect New Orleans from future hurricanes, a pittance, of course, compared with the $15 billion to $20 billion the Army Corps of Engineers said was needed to adhere to plans set forth in the Coast 2050 document.

Money is one thing; time is another. “Assume you have the money,” says James R. Hanchey, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. “I am not so naive as to think that in a state like Louisiana you can get anything done without everyone agreeing to it. I would say that less than 10 years is not possible.”

Back in 1998 Joseph N. Suhayda, a now-retired Louisiana State University coastal oceanographer, created a computer simulation of a Category 4 hurricane striking New Orleans in which the city was flooded more devastatingly than it was following Katrina. He showed it to an array of bigwigs, from state legislators to Army Corps of Engineers higher-ups to Washington’s officialdom. Everybody nodded in agreement that this could happen, but no one did anything. “It’s a matter of will,” says Suhayda, “not technology.”


Despite its neglect and plight, south Louisiana is one of the most beloved parts of this country. In such affection lies the crux and irony of why this coast has been abandoned by big money and big movers, both of which could help protect it from the predicted weather patterns. Cajun music, bayou life, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, New Orleans’s restaurants, and treasured traditions are wonderful oddities, even anachronisms, in our country of fast food and fast highways. With all its joie de vivre, who takes south Louisiana seriously? At a meeting I once attended in New Orleans, a fisherman stood up and observed loudly: “The coastal corrosion we got is so bad that if we don’ do somethin’ an’ a hurrycane come in der, der’s goin’ to be a lot of dead people.” As prescient as this man was, the audience only roared with delight at his quirky mispronunciations.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita treated the Gulf Coast cruelly. Yet the ensuing disaster they caused is probably the best catalyst available to inspire the necessary commitment, both locally and nationally, though it is slow in coming. The storms’ havoc has made sure that the rest of the country looks upon south Louisiana and the entire Mississippi River in a new light. “We have tied the hands of the Mississippi, given it a heart attack by restricting its flow,” Windell Curole, manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, told me recently. Then he added: “Now the facts are out about the consequences, it can’t help but benefit south Louisiana. I am not ready to give up. When you are up to your neck in water, you don’t stop swimming.”


Christopher Hallowell, a professor of journalism at Baruch College in New York City, is the author of Holding Back the Sea, which in 2001 predicted the devastating effects of a hurricane striking New Orleans and south Louisiana.




© 2006 National Audubon Society

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