Nature always bats last

Seeing today’s news story of raising the floodgates on the Morganza spillway (on the Mississippi River in Louisiana) brought to mind one of the riverboat cruises we took back in the day–probably the one that reached the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Mississippi Atchafalaya River–in which a lecturer informed us of the great work the Army Corps of Engineers was doing to prevent an “ecological catastrophe.”

The nature of that “catastrophe,” and the grotesque misuse of the word “ecological” to describe it, was clear at the time–and the crossout above says that almost as clearly as the map in the news story does.

To wit: The ACE has, for the last five decades, prevented the Mississippi from being the Misssissippi–from flowing along the course the river carves. That course, at this point, is called the Atchafalaya. The only reason Baton Rouge is a navigable port and New Orleans is effectively a seaport is because the structure at Morganza has fought mightily to prevent the Mississippi from being a river and turn it into a managed waterway.

Updated: As noted in the first comment on this post, I’ve apparently confused Morganza with a larger upriver control structure that’s almost failed once in its attempt to prevent the Mississippi from being a river. I think the rest of the post still stands, though. End update.

Eventually, that effort had to fail. It’s a damn shame for the Cajuns and others within the Atchafalaya basin, whose livelihoods depended on their belief that people are more powerful than nature and, thus, willingness to live and work in a flood plain–more specifically, the natural course of the Mississippi. It’s fortunate for the people of New Orleans, who’ve had more than enough bad luck (aided by bad flood-prevention measures, bad planning, bad…well, if it wasn’t for bad luck…) to last them a while. And yes, I’m very much looking forward to ALA Annual: if it wasn’t in New Orleans, I might not be going.

It is sad–but it was also pretty much inevitable. I’m sure that, post-flood, the powers that be will try to reassert man’s dominance over nature along the Mississippi, and work really hard to move its flow back to the old path, the path the river wanted to abandon some decades back. And, for a while, they’ll succeed. Until the next time around.

Slight background. My father was a civil engineer and also the irrigation engineer for the Modesto Irrigation District. I rarely saw him as angry as when people were encouraged to rebuild in flood plains following floods, and were able to buy subsidized insurance to do so….and, to be sure, when government then had to spend enormous sums either “preventing” the recurrence of absolutely natural phenomena or rescuing the fools who knowingly rebuilt in flood plains.

Oh, those riverboat cruises? Thanks to several factors–9/11 for one, corporate arrogance and overreach for another, the sheer costs of running U.S.-flagged cruises for a third–the three overnight authentic steamboats that used to cruise the heartland rivers are all out of business. One’s for sale; one–the most authentic, the Delta Queen, originally built for the Sacramento Delta–was briefly a hotel and is also for sale; one’s being broken up.

2 Responses to “Nature always bats last”

  1. My understanding is that the Morganza opening was expected, and won’t permanently reroute the river. The critical bulwark maintaining the current route is the Old River Control Structure further upstream; if that one fails, I gather the rerouting would be either extremely difficult or impossible to undo.

    The ORCS came close to failing in 1973. Part of the reason for opening the Morganza now is to take some of the pressure off the ORCS.

    My knowledge of the lower Mississippi is at some remove (mostly reading John McPhee’s articles on it), though, so I’d be happy to hear from folks with more expertise.

  2. walt says:

    You’re no doubt right–I was probably conflating the Morganza situation with ORCS–but the ORCS is, sooner or later, doomed to fail, in my opinion: The river wants to go where the river wants to go.