vermilion river graphic

I think we can all agree that we like our state. Sure, its people have their flaws and they often make mistakes, but the physical state itself — the bayous, the lakes, the forests and woods — is beautiful.

This beauty is often a muse for us to create something inspired by nature, yet distinctly human. Our blue-tinted canines and colorfully decorated pelican statues speckled around Acadiana come to mind, but I also like to think of hand-crafted pirogues our earliest cajun ancestors created and utilized as a type of art too.

After all, these boats are finely crafted, beautiful and useful; they also just so happen to use nature (in this case the trunks of trees) as the medium.

We are inspired by nature and we use its gifts to suit our purposes, but more often than not we don’t give back in the same amounts that we take, or we don’t give back what is due.

The Mississippi River is a little bit of a point of pride to us down here in Louisiana. Besides Minnesota, where its trickling headwaters are located, we are the only state to have the Mississippi run right through us and we mark the gateway to a natural intracontinental highway.

We tame, regulate, and course-correct the flow of this river to better ourselves, but in doing so cause irreparable harm to the environment. In changing how our waterways drain and receive water for commercial gain or flood prevention, we have inadvertently caused massive erosion of our coastal areas.

To show the power of what we can achieve, I would like to look at the Old River Control Structure, a marvel of engineering, but a source of unintended consequences.

The Red River and the Mississippi River used to be parallel rivers that each ran to the Gulf of Mexico in different ways. Over time, though, the meandering Mississippi intercepted Red River. This had the effect of making the Red River a tributary that flowed into the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya a distributary that flowed out of it.

In an attempt to make shipping through the Mississippi faster, a canal was built that allowed water to mainly flow through to the Mississippi channel, with only a small river connecting the two bigger rivers.

Soon after, however, more and more water was going through that smaller river and down the Atchafalaya rather than the Mississippi. If this were to continue, then Baton Rouge and New Orleans would be cut out from its mighty waters.

To prevent this, dams, levies and spillways were created to stop that from happening. This may be good for business, but it has shown to be terrible for our wetlands and coastal areas.

By setting up these barriers to prevent the movement of water, good proper sediment carried by tributaries does not make it to the Mississippi and, therefore, cannot make it to the gulf.

As the Mississippi flows into the gulf and slows down rapidly, it would normally drop off fresh, land-building silt, but since we have completely reigned in how the river flows, that silt just is not there.

In fact, one of the few places on the Louisiana coast to actually form new land is the Wax Lake Delta, which is the outlet channel for the Atchafalaya River and where a lot of silt is able to make it to the gulf.

If you couple this with the fact that sea levels are rising due to the earth getting warmer, you have a recipe for a seriously truncated Louisiana.

“Why should the wetlands matter?” one might ask. After all, it is just land. Well, besides being major habitats for native species, they also provide some of the best natural defenses against storm surges nature can produce.

Wetlands are filled with many sorts of plant life. Plants usually have these totally vogue things called roots that bind the soil together and keep themselves, well, rooted in one place.

If a hurricane or big storm comes along dumping and directing tons and tons of water onto land, the plants and lands act as barriers that disrupt water flow and slow the creeping of it onto land. They also naturally regulate the amount of water leaving at any one time so as not to allow silt and soil from inland to make its way out to sea, slowing and preventing erosion.

Now is when I would tell you about the solution that, if implemented, would change everything I just discussed and Louisiana’s coasts would be okay. But I don’t.

There are not many proposals to help this situation. There is a lot of activism and information about this problem, but not many solutions. A popular idea that could work and makes sense to me proposes periodically flooding the region downstream of the Mississippi to send coast-building soil that way.

Personally, however, I think the idea of letting nature take its course and letting the Mississippi flow how it wants would be in the best interests of our future state.

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