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America's River

Audubon    May/June 2006

More than any feature on the globe, the Mississippi symbolizes a people. Its watershed stretches from New York to Idaho. For 200 years we have tried and failed to control the river. We write poetry about it, paint pictures of it, use it to irrigate our crops and remove our waste. The Mississippi enabled our manifest destiny, connected us in commerce, separated us in war. It is the setting for what is at once our favorite novel and our most eloquent condemnation of meanness and stupidity. It is America’s river, and its condition reflects our own.

The river’s 29 locks and dams are less products of necessity than politics. Minneapolis, for example, fantasized about becoming a seaport. So in 1945 Mayor Hubert Humphrey began crusading for two hideously expensive locks to float barges over Upper and Lower St. Anthony Falls. He pushed the boondoggle through when he became a U.S. senator.

Such manipulations imperil at least 15 Mississippi fish that adapted to the river’s turbidity by developing external sensory organs called barbels, flat heads, or small eyes overgrown with skin to reduce abrasion. When silt drops out of dam-slowed current, their prey can see them. On top of this, agricultural runoff and other pollution limits fish all the way to the river’s mouth, and in the Gulf of Mexico it exhausts dissolved oxygen, thereby creating an 8,000-square-mile “Dead Zone” that excludes all gill breathers.

Still, the river’s biological richness astounds. Europe’s major rivers run east and west, so their mussel fauna was severely limited by glaciers, but the Mississippi’s mussels merely fled south. There are dozens of species, with names like “heel-splitter,” “washboard,” “pig-toe,” and “ebony shell.” The last of these used to dominate the upper river. Its larvae attach to the gills of skipjack herring, but when the dams interdicted the herring run, the ebony shell crashed. Now the species is showing up again because a few skipjacks have made it over the dams during recent floods.

Before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “improved” the river, as it likes to say, there were no floodwalls and levees for the Mississippi to blast through. It did not drown or render homeless the Americans who lived beside it and who simply moved their teepees when it languidly inhaled. On high ground they waited for the river to creep and seep through a rich mosaic of wooded islands, wild rice fields, sloughs, meadows, woods, ponds, and prairies—delivering seeds, renewing the earth with its gentle snow of sediment.

With these annual inhalations came the floodplain spawners—bigmouth and smallmouth buffalofish and scores of others, repopulating drought-killed oxbows, easing through flooded timber and grass, broadcasting eggs. Fry would fatten on plankton blooms, and in summer fingers of the gradually falling river would shepherd them back, leaving vast mudflats that fed migrating shorebirds. Otters gorged on fish; cougars patrolled canebrakes; wolves hunted beavers in bottomland forests. On their spring and fall migrations ducks, geese, and other waterbirds streamed up and down the Mississippi’s reach, resting and feeding in vast wetlands renewed by the unconfined river. In the lower watershed ivory-billed woodpeckers excavated thousand-year-old cypress trees, and Bachman’s warblers rustled through hardwood canopies.

Like the Indians, Mark Twain knew the river. “The military engineers of the [River] Commission have taken upon their shoulders the job of making the Mississippi over again—a job transcended in size by only the original job of creating it,” he wrote in 1882. “Ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.”

French pioneers knew the river, too. When they founded New Orleans in 1718, about 80 miles of marsh separated it from the Gulf of Mexico. They built what is now called the French Quarter on a natural levee well above sea level. But now the Gulf is only 35 miles away, and the part of the city built on marsh is more than eight feet below sea level. After Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans—sparing the French Quarter—Louisiana politicians called for the time-dishonored solution of higher levees.

Of its two-century-old war with the Mississippi, the Corps has bragged, “We harnessed it, straightened it, regularized it, shackled it.” But never for long. And largely because of those failed efforts, we’re losing more than 15,000 acres of wetlands every year. Now, however, Congress is seriously considering using the Corps as something other than a conduit for pumping pork. Provided the Corps gets congressional approval and funding, it will help the river do its thing in places by reconnecting it to its floodplain. The most ambitious proposal—the redirection of a third of the flow so that silt can rebuild the dying marshes north of Terrabonne and Barataria bays—would have the added benefit of significantly reducing or perhaps eliminating the Dead Zone.

As the old saw goes, “No one’s making new land these days.” But the Mississippi used to. In the 5,000 years before we set up our temporary containments, it built 5 million acres of flood-absorbing, wildlife-rich delta, changing course and carving new sediment-carrying channels six times. It will get back to that, if we let it.


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