Wednesday, September 27, 2006


In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a few scientists questioned whether it might be time to evaluate the long-term siting of New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River, which has been trying to shift its main channel for decades and has only been held back by the intervention of the Corps of Engineers. Given the magnitude of the post-Katrina human disaster and the fumbled federal, state and local responses, it seemed impolite to point out that nature was voting against the restoration of the antediluvian status quo. I'm surprised and pleased to see that a group of academics and local experts wasn't deterred, and has been investigating this subject in great detail. They've come out with some very interesting conclusions. The New York Times has a nice multi-media presentation on their report, along with a more detailed article. The group's recommendation sounds like clever engineering combined with a sort of environmental judo, giving in to the river's urge to shift, but focusing it at a point of our choosing.

The importance of this research extends beyond urban planning and land management. An unmanaged shift of the Mississippi to the channel of the Atchafalaya River would strand not only the Port of New Orleans, but also a sizeable fraction of the region's oil and petrochemical processing industry, with consequences for the entire US economy. As the article points out, the strategy of capturing the river sediments currently dumped over the continental shelf and using them to rebuild the region's disappearing wetlands would help New Orleans to withstand future hurricanes better, along with addressing other expected impacts from climate change.

I see a further benefit from this proposal. It has become almost axiomatic that, despite the growth of our economy and government over the last several decades, America has lost the knack of planning and executing national-scale projects. Successfully tackling the re-channeling of the Mississippi will require an enormous public/private effort, with management to match. If forecasts of the most dire outcomes of climate change are correct, we should consider shifting the Mississippi as a modest test flight for what could be required in the future. I will be following the progress of this effort with great interest.

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