Monday, May 16, 2011

The River Will Win....

As the tremors faded, Logan glanced north toward a line of levees the Corps of Engineers had erected long ago, to reassure a trusting public that all eventualities were predictable, controllable, and would be forever, amen. In the distance, a new sound could be heard, not as deep or grating as the quakes, but just as frightening. It felt like vast herds of wild beasts on the rampage.

That was when Logan knew with utter certainty the Corps had been wrong... that all things must come to an end. The concrete prison, forged by man to control a mighty river, had finally cracked. And a crack was all the prisoner needed.

The father of waters was free at last.

Long delayed, the Mississippi was coming to Atchafalaya.

     -- from EARTH, by David Brin (1989)
          (Page 619 of the US paperback edition or p. 550 of the hardover)

We're witnessing record flooding of the Mississippi River, forcing thousands of people to evacuate. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently opened the Morganza spillway for the first time in nearly four decades -- to relieve pressure on the levees, and protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from severe flooding (which could have rivalled Hurricane Katrina in its severity). The water will now flow into the Atchafalaya basin, and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.

Through engineering, we have diverted the powerful Mississippi River -- but is it time to listen to Nature, and allow her to choose her own path? Here's an article I wrote in 2005 when terrible hurricanes and flooding inundated New Orleans. It's particularly relevant today:

In EARTH, I describe how desperately the Mississippi wants to change its course. Every year, it strains harder against the Army Corps of Engineers' magnificent -- but someday doomed -- Atchafalaya Control Dam. This structure is a key element in that battle -- going back two hundred years -- to keep the Great River constrained to a single, narrow, navigable channel.

Look at a map and ponder. Anyone who lives in that region knows that the river "wants" to change course... as natural rivers always do... heading down a steeper, shorter path to the Gulf of Mexico. A path down the Atchafalaya Valley. Every year, strains on the Control Structure increase, as do flood premiums for people living along the Atchafalaya. Everyone know what will happen, "sooner or later."

Is it possible that NOW may be the right time to let the river go?

There have always been benefits and drawbacks to this idea, with the political balance invariably choosing to leave things as they were... spending hundreds of millions to keep forcing Ol' Miss down its old channel, which continues silting and rising. (Today, the river's BOTTOM now lies above the second floor of some NoLa buildings. Shall we keep fighting nature till a syrup-sluggish flow passes the THIRD floor? Fourth? Any higher and the river will flow backwards!)

Obstinacy has had huge, expensive and destructive effects -- artificially lengthening the official channel (now an extended finger aimed at Cuba), hampering shipping, robbing the barrier islands and swamps of silt, until Louisiana's delta is almost gone... the old natural hurricane barrier that might have saved New Orleans from Katrina.

ListenToNatureBenefits of opening the gates: a new, straight and fast channel to the Gulf -- especially if it were prepared and then water-scoured -- would require little in the way of ongoing dredging or levees. Carried swiftly to the Gulf, silt would spread wide, rebuilding wetlands and islands, recreating the natural storm barriers.

After an adjustment period, river commerce should be more efficient. And the endeavor may partly be paid off by nongovernmental money, attracted to an entirely new rivermouth economic zone. (Providing jobs preferentially for the displaced?)

An added bonus. This is one proposed mega-engineering project that environmentalists may not block. While some might resist out of a reflex to oppose any ambitious alteration of nature, others will see it as restoring a long-lost balance and offer enthusiastic backing. Might this even set a new tone for the years that follow? One of cooperation between those with a keen eye for spotting problems... and those with bold proposals to solve them?

Drawbacks: This plan would require finally buying out a chain of Atchafalaya farms -- and some villages -- that have long known the river would someday come a-calling. Some will kick and scream while others welcome getting the waiting over with, calmly, deliberately. Some may even relish new riverfront views.

But let's face it, the real opposition to releasing the Imprisoned Mississippi always came from NoLa itself, which took pride and identity from being America's greatest River City. Only now the Big Easy may be ready, at last, to accept a different role.

Please, I am not offering this suggestion in order to kick New Orleans while it's down. Indeed, this may be the best and only way to rebuild all of this great town... and more. For example, if the Mississippi moves away, NoLa will remain a GULF city. With Pontchartrain right next door, its port could stay valuable, though much traffic would be diverted to trans-shipment facilities at the new Atchafalaya outlet. In any event, this would cut in half the number of dikes that New New Orleans has to maintain. That savings, alone, might pay for the diversion. (Actually, it may cut the number by more than 2/3.)

And picture this: Today's riverbed would then become an amazing raised plateau, winding through town. Envision it supporting a rail corridor, to replace some essential portion of traffic from the transplaced river. Or, better yet, imagine a sinuous path of view-rich housing for many of the displaced, so high that even a future break in the Ponchartrain dikes would never touch them. And the sogginess that rots every beam and timber of New Orleans today? Presumably that would decline, as well.

(Certainly on the west and south sides of the old riverbed, this solution would be permanent. A drier life, free of mildew. Only then the suburbs will be physically linked to Old NoLa... perhaps something they won't like, given the unneighborly behavior that some displayed during this crisis.)

Indeed, this may be the one way to ensure that even old neighborhoods can be rebuilt, without the nation worrying that it's all for nothing.

With a year's warning, a new Achafalaya path for the Mississippi could be prepared (the one it wants to take and will take, sooner or later). If done carefully, the new river will be healthier, better for commerce, and the whole region ecologically improved. What's more, it's probably much cheaper than any other plan, as well. Heck, the river itself should do most of the work.

The alternative? Spend billions restoring and then maintaining an impossible situation... keep chaining up an adamant river that pushes harder every year against the artificial bonds that enslave it to our shortsighted will... until the Dam eventually gives way anyway, releasing the Father of Waters to come sweeping down upon unprepared farms and villages... leaving New Orleans just as high and dry.

==See: Listen to Nature and Accept Her Adamant Plan


SteveO said...

Gosh I hope not. Bad things would happen to Louisiana the way things are now...

See this for a map of the at-risk area of the Atchafalaya.

Dwight Williams said...

Bad things are already happening to Louisiana with things as they've been this past decade. And the solutions are still being argued over even as the (re)construction of (some of) them continues.

Whether or not they're the best solutions for coping with the reality of the river...?

Tony Fisk said...

I think there might be an allegory there.

Tim H. said...

If the Atchafalaya becomes the main route of the Mississippi, port facilities would be obsoleted, jobs lost, but the worst financial hit would be to people that play golf with senators, might explain the sense of urgency that seemed to be missing with Katrina.
In other news, a managing director of the IMF was caught trying to slip one to a working class person, literally:
usually bankers manage that with a loan contract...

WiseLalia said...

David, there are parts of Earth that haunt me to this day. Your book has lived in my unconscious and conscious.

I'm in agreement about working with the forces of nature. Better to go with the flow than to waste time, money, lives and more in what will be futile in the long run.

David Brin said...

If it were done as a planned transition, the Achafalaya could be water-scoured into a major river bed in a few years -- accompanied by dredging. New port facilities would be a great work-infrastructure program.

But dig it, New Orleans would not be left high and dry. It currently gets much of its port traffic via "lake" Ponchartrain, its sea-level outlet to the Gulf. A little digging and most of its port facilities would still be usable, tying to a new rail line atop the old riverbed.

Similar solutions would let the river-side petrochemical industries ship in either direction, by rail or canal to NoLa or up an Ol'Miss leg past Baton Rouge and down to Morgan City. Inconvenient but no disaster.

And a huge long term savings.

David Brin said...

Spread this. Get it to your crazy uncles.

Pat Mathews said...

Marvelous! You know, a lot of those farmers could not get flood insurance and knew they couldn't and settled there anyway. If the government compensates them, and I'm sure they will be asked to, it should be on condition they move to higher ground. Then - let 'er rip!


Pat Mathews said...

P.S. David - please cc all your Congresscritters, plus those from Louisiana, plus President Obama - if you haven't done so already.

Greg said...

What would happen if they couldn't do this as a planned transition? I live in St. Louis and we just finished another three days of rain. It's supposed to be dry for the rest of the week but the meteorologists haven't been good for more than three days out all season. The news article says the spillway will be open for weeks. But what if we have a long, rainy summer in the Mississipi watershed?

sociotard said...

Amateur astronomer photographs entire night sky as a 5000 megapixel image.

sociotard said...

The Portugal thing was interesting. The only problem I see is that it still enables that golden river of cash to the drug cartels. Those people are scary, and the argument that usually gets me in favor of more legalization is that normal evil capitalists would get rich off it, instead of violent evil capitalists.

SteveO said...

Dwight, sorry, I should have been more clear. We do need to plan for the Mississippi to head through Atchafalaya - it is inevitable. "Plan" being the operative word, though. I think choosing to do it now would kill New Orleans economically and culturally. Choosing to do it later, with a plan, is what is needed. *IF* we are given the time to do so. A swollen Miss is one expected effect of global climate change.

Lake Pontchartrain would suffer ecologically if it became the new port of entry - that needs to be considered as well. It obviously doesn't have the drainage that the river does.

The real question: is there even a constituency for this change? Any politician that proposes it will be shouted down, the Corps' mandate probably does not even allow them to consider it.

Another example of "we won't plan for the inevitable - we will let it be a disaster first."

Oh, and already sent along one thing on the Lisbon "miracle" - and sent this one too.

Not going to change my ostrich's mind though - he seems impervious to persuasion on that.

David Brin said...

They've opened only one of 50 spillways, so far. If it rains hard, well... they can open more. And they might as well start dredging the new river.


sociotard said...

And combining the flood and the amateur theme, watch this guy protect his home.

Paul said...

"Today's riverbed would then become an amazing raised plateau, winding through town. Envision it supporting a rail corridor, to replace some essential portion of traffic from the transplaced river. Or, better yet, imagine a sinuous path of view-rich housing for many of the displaced"

The plateau would be silt. Doesn't that make an unstable and expensive place to build anything you want to carry weight, like rail, roads or buildings.

Perhaps linear park plus light-vehicle tracks. Combined with a federally funded docklands redevelopment (which has done wonders for other cities.)

(deles: Best damn eatin' in whole
of Louisiana. If you eat it, Delé, she cook it.)

Paul said...

Re: farmers
"If the government compensates them, and I'm sure they will be asked to, it should be on condition they move to higher ground."

No, no conditions. Let them decide what they want to do with their own land. The smart ones will take their money and use it to exploit the new river-front land. Becoming the region's next generation of developers.

Ian said...

Is there some way to up the share of the Mississippi water that flows to the Atchafalaya from the current 30% to, say, 50% while keeping both rivers navigable?