Back when the Mississippi River flowed wild, its ever-changing waters moved soil across the North American continent. It picked up sand and dirt in the north and brought it to the southern areas of what we now call the state of Louisiana.
Thousands of years later, man-made barriers called levees and flood-control systems contain the powerful river. But Louisiana officials are making plans to use the Mississippi’s ancient power to build new land as a way to ease the threat of rising seas.
Engineers hope to remake eroded, low-lying lands by cutting into the levees and redirecting the water. The water holds a lot of small dirt particles, or sediment. The sediments can flow into coastal basins. When the sediment particles settle out of the water, they will slowly gather into soil.
Bren Haase leads the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. He told the Associated Press the main problem in coastal Louisiana is a lack of sediment.
“So we’re trying to mimic the way Mother Nature would have delivered that sediment to our coast in the past,” Haase said.
Some critics question whether the idea presents its own environmental risks. But if it does work, the project would rebuild an important protection against storm surges. It would also help provide new living areas for birds and fish that depend on wetlands.
Saltwater is destroying the coast. Pathways cut for oil and gas development, boat travel and logging have worsened the problem. The state estimates that it has lost about 518,000 hectares of land since 1932. If nothing is done, more than twice that much land could disappear over the next 50 years.
Experts and officials have discussed the idea of using the river to rebuild the coast for many years. But it was not until money became available from the 2010 BP oil spill that plans began to really take shape.
In 2010, an explosion killed 11 people on an oil rig off the Gulf Coast that energy company BP operated. Millions of gallons of oil then flowed into the water over the next three months.
One year later, the United States government ruled that BP and two other companies were responsible for the accident. The companies were ordered to pay billions of dollars for the damage. Louisiana is putting much of its share of the money toward coastal restoration.
The state is spending about $2 billion on two projects called Mid-Barataria and Mid-Breton. They are named for the bodies of water in which they will be placed.
As the redirected river water flows out of the coastal areas, the sediment settles out and begins collecting. It first gathers under the water and, over time, above the surface. One day, plant life such as marsh grass or willow trees can take root.
The earliest start to the project would be in 2021 or 2022.
Not everyone is eager about the efforts.
Robert Campo’s family has been in the fishing industry since 1903. He is from the small town of Shell Beach, which sits along the Mississippi River. He and others worry that the redirection will flood their fishing areas. This would destroy an industry that is very important to the state’s economy and culture.
“We all want coastal restoration. Trust me. … I think we need to rebuild this whole coast. But there’s other ways of doing it,” Campo said.
Redirection opponents point to recent flooding-fighting efforts on the Mississippi.
Fed by rain and melting snows in the Midwest, the Mississippi ran unusually high for months earlier this year. The Army Corps of Engineers twice opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway. This protects New Orleans’ levees by directing huge amounts of river water normally into Lake Pontchartrain.
The sudden release of freshwater into saltwater environments killed wildlife and damaged people’s ability to earn a living.
I’m Pete Musto.
Rebecca Santana reported this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
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Words in This Story
continent – n. one of the great divisions of land, such as North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, or Antarctica of the Earth
eroded – adj. slowly destroyed by natural forces such as water, wind, or ice
basin(s) – n. the area of land around a large river and the small rivers that flow into it
mimic – v. to create the appearance or effect of something
deliver(ed) – v. to take something to a person or place
surge(s) – n. a large wave of water
logging – n. the business of cutting down trees in an area for wood
oil rig – n. a structure above an oil well on land or in the sea that has special equipment attached to it for drilling and removing oil from the ground
restoration – n. the act or process of returning something to its original condition by repairing or cleaning it