Harnessing the Power of the Mississippi for Restoration

Recent floods highlight the need to use the river to protect communities and feed sediment to wetlands

For many communities along the Mississippi River, 2016 started off chaotically as torrential downpours in Illinois and Missouri led to record-setting floods. Farther south, in Louisiana, state officials opened the Bonnet Carré spillway for the first time since 2011 to reduce pressure on the levees that protect New Orleans and other communities from flooding. While this move to divert floodwaters kept the levees intact, it also shines a light on Louisiana’s ongoing land loss crisis and how the river can be used to solve it. 

Before the federal government constructed levees to protect New Orleans and other cities from flooding, the Mississippi River spread out over its flood plain and deposited its sediment in the delta, building the wetlands of coastal Louisiana. This natural process built a vast network of wetlands that absorbs hurricane storm surges, and provides fish and wildlife habitat. Now that the river no longer connects to this floodplain, its sediment is lost to the open ocean at a rate of 176 million tons per year, the equivalent of an F-150 pickup truck per second. That means Louisiana’s is losing more than a football field of land every hour.

January’s floods highlight the need to manage the river to both protect communities from flooding and feed the sediment to the wetlands.  The proposed construction of two sediment diversions would harness the power of the river and its sediment to restore the coast by depositing sediment in the places it is needed the most. 

Image courtesy of LSU Earth Scan Laboratory

“You can see from outer space the sediment flow out of the river,” said John Lopez, coastal program coordinator at Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. “When you see that plume, it demonstrates how much energy the river contains, and using diversions to capture the sediment and the energy of the river to deliver that sediment is essential.”

Other Walton Family Foundation grantees behind the Restore the Mississippi River Delta campaign created a sediment counter to illustrate how many tons of uncaptured sediment have not been used to restore the Louisiana coast.

This video, created by Restore the Mississippi River Delta partner, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, shows why one of the proposed diversions, located near Myrtle Grove and known as the Mid-Barataria diversion, is so critical to rebuilding coastal Louisiana.

These organizations have worked diligently to advocate for diversions by ensuring the state of Louisiana included plans for four of them in its Coastal Master Plan. The state will update this plan in 2017, and Louisiana should stay the course by moving forward with these two diversions and continuing to plan for two more. Finally, we must ensure funds from fines and penalties related to the 2010 Gulf oil spill finance these projects, as well as other scientifically-sound restoration projects across the Gulf.

The plans are in place and the money is available for diversions – all that is waiting now is for decision-makers at the local, state and federal level to move quickly to approve construction of these projects. Thanks to the hard work of our partners across the Gulf, we’re hopeful that the next time the Mississippi floods, we’ll be able to put the river to work.

Kristin Tracz is an environment program officer at the Walton Family Foundation.