Managing the Mississippi: During unprecedented challenges, landmark river studies emerging

Published: Nov. 16, 2023 at 10:49 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In a landmark collaboration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers partners with local colleges to initiate a comprehensive study of the Mississippi River, tackling critical challenges like saltwater intrusion, erosion, and flood control measures.

Local governments, having invested millions in providing fresh drinking water for the population, now face calls for substantial changes to address the challenges affecting a major economic driver in the area.

Key Challenges

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a loss of over 2,000 square miles of land in Louisiana’s coastal parishes since the construction of the Mississippi River levees nearly a century ago.

“It’s like taking a baby from its mama. It’s not gonna do very well. The delta is the baby and mama is the river,” said Foster Creppel, who owns Woodland Plantation.

Hundreds descend on Woodland Plantation each year to appreciate the fishing, food, and natural wonders of one of the world’s great river systems.

Ships travel along the Mississippi River in LaPlace, La., as the sun sets on Friday, Oct. 20,...
Ships travel along the Mississippi River in LaPlace, La., as the sun sets on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)(Gerald Herbert | AP)

“We drain 41% of the contiguous us and 1,200,000 mi.² of our country even some Canadian provinces,” said Sean Duffy, with the Big River Coalition.

“There’s no easy answers, and it’s not without sacrifice that this is going to happen,” said Creppel.

Efforts to mitigate saltwater intrusion during low river levels involve substantial investments. Some parishes spend millions to bring in fresh water.

“For $12-15 million and the notion of saltwater getting into every pipe in the parish, it was a cheap price tag,” said Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng.

Management Strategies and Debates

FILE - In this aerial photo, dredging operations to build an underwater sill are seen, with...
FILE - In this aerial photo, dredging operations to build an underwater sill are seen, with the city of New Orleans in the background, Sept. 26, 2023, in Plaquemines Parish, La. Salt water inching up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico is progressing more slowly than projected, authorities said Thursday, Oct. 5, meaning water systems in the greater New Orleans area that draw drinking water from the river have additional weeks to prepare. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)(Gerald Herbert | AP)

Debate rages over how to manage the river.

Some Plaquemines Parish officials believe cuts in the river at Mardi Gras, Ostrica, and Neptune passes, among others, have helped allow salt water to creep into drinking water. It’s a notion that puts the parish’s tourism director at odds with other parish leaders.

The Corps of Engineers, the river’s keeper, is actively considering closures at strategic points, primarily to maintain safe navigation channels for massive ships.

“We are looking at Neptune pass to close. We are in the environmental impact study and we’re looking at designs to close. For a year and a half, that’s been in the process,” said Corps’ spokesman Ricky Boyett. “In 2021, we saw impact to navigation. It was starting to show in areas that we never had a dredge. We started to get a pull on the vessels.”

Boyett says in spite of fears, the main crevasses on the river still show a positive outflow of river water. Many believe that water and the sediment it carries help feed starving marsh, holding the line against coastal erosion.

In this aerial photo, a tugboat pushing barges navigates around sandbars during low water...
In this aerial photo, a tugboat pushing barges navigates around sandbars during low water levels on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, La., and Reserve, La., in Livingston Parish, La., Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)(Gerald Herbert | AP)

These are complicated issues, driven by physical earth forces like rainfall, tide, and wind direction. Despite the complexity, the Corps plans to invest $25 million over the next five years to develop a sustainable river management plan, examining the entire stretch from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico.

The depth of the river is also under scrutiny.

The corps spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to dredge the river to a depth of 50 feet to allow larger ships to pass.

Some say that depth makes it easier for saltwater to creep in, but the corps says the current depth, coupled with sills designed to block the saltwater advance, is a workable solution.

“The Mississippi River is naturally deep. It’s much deeper than 55 feet. The only place we dredge is below mile 13, below Venice, and above mile 115, near Kenner,” said Boyett.

Environmental and Economical Impacts

A special commission, focused on preserving the river’s economic impact on the shipping industry, supports the closure of some cuts, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive approach. However, opponents argue that such closures may disrupt nutrient-rich flows beneficial to wetlands.

When the Mississippi is flowing normally, Neptune Pass has grown to carry a volume of water that would make it the fourth-largest river in the U.S.

FILE - A shipwreck is exposed along the banks of the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, due to...
FILE - A shipwreck is exposed along the banks of the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, due to low water levels, Oct. 18, 2022, in Baton Rouge, La. Archaeologists believe the ship is a ferry that was built in the late 1800s or early 1900s and sunk in 1915. (AP Photo/Stephen Smith)(Stephen Smith | AP)

Corps officials say sealing it off is no guarantee that a new one won’t pop up elsewhere. For example, an old lock at Ostrica has remained closed for nearly a decade, but the river found a new channel just downstream, which Creppel believes has helped nurture a once-dying marsh.

“This is a low river, at a low tide, and look at the marsh grass, and look how much sand is building up here,” said Creppel.

“You just can’t just close them off. There are environmental impacts we have to consider and there could be unintended consequences,” said Boyett.

Toward Sustainable Solutions

The National Academies of Sciences and Engineering recently awarded $22 million to Tulane, LSU, and a group of local universities to conduct a five-year study, to help the Corps and other decision-makers manage the lower reaches of the river.

Six historically Black colleges and universities are also part of the consortium: Southern University of Baton Rouge, Xavier University of New Orleans, Jackson State University, Grambling State University, Dillard University and Alcorn State University.

Also part of the group are the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Central Florida, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, the Water Institute of the Gulf and the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

The corps says their five-year study will be the most comprehensive look at the river since the1930′s.

“A lot of the thinking that goes into how we manage the river is more than 50 years old. The levee system was built after the 1927 flood,” said study director Mead Allison from Tulane.

It’s a dynamic system and an economic driver that sustains the region, attracting a growing number of eco-tourists from around the world who enjoy the uniqueness and beauty of a vast river delta that’s been badly depleted, but still pulses with activity.

“Plaquemines Parish and this Delta, is a national treasure that we have to take care of,” said Creppel.

Creppel, coastal experts, and the maritime industry say they will continue to work with the Corps as it studies the best ways to preserve the delta and keep the river sustainable for the next 150 years.

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