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Intervention By Man Often Creates More Problems

A major environmental issue in Louisiana is the restoration of the wetlands, which besides being a haven for seafood and wildlife, offers protection to the mainland from hurricanes and storm surges.

However, two incidents, one natural and one by man have made management of the river along with saving and even restoring the wetlands a very complicated problem.

The Mississippi River is the waterway superhighway for the nation. From a trickle of water in the north, the Mississippi sends millions of gallons of water into the Gulf. Before interference by man, the velocity of the river would slow when it reached the outlet below New Orleans, allowing it to deposit nutrient-rich sediments from upriver along the coastline of the state, which constantly recharged the wetlands and rebuilt them after major storms and hurricanes.

In 1929, there was a major flood of the Mississippi and cities like Baton Rouge, and New Orleans sustained severe impacts. Thus, the decision was made to build levees along the river to protect the two cities. The levees worked, but worked too well. Because the levees more directly channeled the waters of the Mississippi, it moved with greater velocity. Accordingly, upon reaching the Gulf outlet, at that speed until it reached the edge of the continental shelf, where the sediments that once recharged the wetlands fell into the vast waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The problem was further complicated because, despite the levees, the Mississippi River was trying to change course, as it has done several times over thousands of years.

During the 15th century, the Mississippi River, created a small westward loop, later named Turnball’s Bend, near present day Angola, LA. The bend became a nuisance for steamboat operators because it took several hours to navigate. However, the net result was that the steamboats were only gaining about a mile in their southward direction.

In 1831, Captain Henry M. Shreve, a river engineer and founder of Shreveport, LA, dug a canal through the bend. When the next high-water period came, the Mississippi rushed through the new channel and began taking a different course. The Red River began emptying into the smaller Atchafalaya River, which was force-fed by the Mississippi River at the abandoned Turnbull's Bend, which soon became known as “Old River.”

To keep the Mississippi River from changing its course, which would have resulted in numerous economic and cultural problems, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Old River Control Structure, in 1964, which is designed to regulate the flow between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers.

An auxiliary structure was added in the 1980s, when it was feared that the Old River structure could not continue to stand the stress.

Therefore, the decision of one man to dig a canal, changed the course of two rivers and with the added levees, robbed the fragile wetlands from the sediment and silt that the Mississippi once deposited in the brackish waters south of Louisiana to rebuild barrier islands and create a delta that offered flood and wind protection.

However, had it not been for the interference by man, it is possible that the Mississippi would have still changed its course, taking the shorter route of the Atchafalaya, resulting in devastating impacts on commerce, economic development and people of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

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