19 May 2011

The Biggest Garden / Taming the Mississippi

At our homes and gardens, we frankly often try to control or subdue nature, even those of us that steer clear of lawns, herbicides and pesticides. We build berms and creek beds to direct water or french drains to move it away from our houses. We bring in soil and mulch that gets washed away. We battle "weeds," chop down trees, and plant new things. We construct a new kind of nature and topography around us. At least, that's what many of us do.

Moving up a notch in the scale - away from the home to the level of community and society - we build drainage ditches along roads, artificial wetlands, parks, ski slopes and more. We manufacture entire landscapes from nothing.

And then moving up yet another notch (or ten) in scale, we try our damndest to control rivers, like the Mississippi, by building levees and dams, straightening rivers, and dredging them.

On the Mississippi, we are attempting to control nature at such a large level that it could almost be considered art. From above, perhaps it looks like a garden designed by a god.

"This continent is not draining the way I want it to," he might expound in a loud and low beardly voice. "It is interfering with this little town I'm growing here." Or, perhaps it's just designed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

"Old River," where the Red River and Mississippi River kiss hello, and where the Atchafalaya begins its ploy to drain the Mississippi. Also, where the U.S. Corp of Engineers has done a lot of design work...

I recently read this article in the New Yorker and it is a must read: Atchafalaya, by John McPhee.

Written pre-Katrina, it's a fascinating look at the systems of levees, spillways and floodgates that have been constructed, dredged and deconstructed to try and tame a river that wants to swing back and forth across the continent like a yak's tail swatting at flies on its ass.
"Man against nature. That’s what life’s all about."
It describes how badly the Mississippi wants to take over the Atchafalaya River, bypassing the shores of New Orleans to create a new path to the sea. And it fully explains why the river levels in that city are so much higher than the city itself. Basically, the Corps of Engineers has engineered the river to such a great extent that the Mississippi has no where else to dissipate upstream, and all that water needs to go somewhere.
"Even at normal stages, the Mississippi was beginning to stand up like a large vein on the back of a hand."
Development along 308, snaking along the eastern border of the Atchafalaya swamp. Mississippi River in the top right. Morgan City in the lower left.
If the U.S. Corps of Engineers is not successful at controlling the river (which no doubt it will be someday), Morgan City could possibly sit pretty on the shores of a new major port, stealing the NOLA throne. But for now...
"Morgan City is sort of like a large tumbler glued to the bottom of an aquarium."
...and like in NOLA, water must be continually pumped and diverted around the cities to keep them dry.
"In terms of hydrology, what we’ve done here at Old River is stop time. We have, in effect, stopped time in terms of the distribution of flows. Man is directing the maturing process of the Atchafalaya and the lower Mississippi."
Good luck with that. As a gardener  - not a qualified engineer mind you - I'd say that controlling nature is a crook's game. You can steal for a while, but you'll get caught eventually.
"Whenever you try to control nature, you’ve got one strike against you."


Raymond Johnson said...
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Jay Castle said...

Great post Lee - I just started reading that article. Early in it, I think you have it allude to a more correct notion that McPhee, Man is Nature.

The question I have, which may be answered later in the article, is how important is it to NOLA that the Mississippi River still be the primary waterway?

I found this article in the WashPost interesting: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/to-save-louisianas-lowlands-officials-want-to-re-engineer-the-mississippi/2011/05/17/AFJt325G_story.html

Lee said...

Hey Jay. Thanks for the tip! I'll take a look. You've probably gotten to it already, but indeed, NOLA is dependent pretty heavily (and Baton Rouge too) because of the oil, gas and plastics industries. Just like Houston. Not sure if that is still the same, post-Katrina...