Man prides himself on changing the face of the Earth. Nothing is beyond his control. Except every time he tries it, he makes things far worse. Simon Winchester, of The Professor and the Madman fame, explores one such boondoggle in The End of the River. In this case, the victim is the Mississippi.
The Mississippi is a classic. More than two thousand miles long, it travels from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. That it makes it that far is a miracle; the Colorado has not been allowed to make it to the sea in years. Americans have built the Mississippi into an unimpeachable industrial aorta of trade, agricultural, industrial and mineral. The country would collapse if it didn’t have the river to conduct its business over. This has been obvious since the Louisiana Purchase. So 200 years ago, Americans began to harness the river, containing it, bordering it, damming it, diverting it and hemming it in. All in an effort to make the river unchanging, when nothing else in the universe stays still. The result has always been total failure, sooner or later.
The river meanders, in the manner of all the great, older rivers. And with this one, it’s not just over the eons, but over our own lifetimes. The river is astonishingly active in its chosen course. It creates loops and then cuts them off, leaving arcing lakes. It shifts back and forth, depending on where the silt it drops builds up, and how much water it processes. There are times when it rages, pushing aside everything in its path, regardless of who built it or with what materials. Americans build by the riverside at their peril, except Americans won’t stand for that. The river must conform.
The current fashion for levees is a fine example. Americans build them higher and higher, based on the last record-setting flood. Winchester tells the story of levees built after the all-time record-setting flood of 1927. The army built levees 25% higher than that, an embarrassment of overengineering and over-preparedness. At least until the next flood set an even bigger record. The levees have become so tall they are actually weaker and can be breached more easily, so the thinking is changing to much lower levees, and controlling the water flow instead. This has resulted in numerous control stations, blocking or diverting as needed.
It all began 200 years ago when a captain named Shreve cut through floating islands of timber called snags, to open what amounts to a canal from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya, a few miles to the west. This bypassed a long and tricky loop, saving a half-day’s sailing. It suddenly made the Atchafalaya navigable, and now the Army Corps of Engineers, which has a mandate to screw with the Mississippi forever, requires 30% of the Mississippi waters to be diverted there, leaving 70% to try to make it to New Orleans. This was supposed to prevent levee breaching and flooding, maintain navigability on both rivers, and avoid continual disasters as the Mississippi changes course. It was also to prevent the river from simply rerouting to the Atchafalya itself, ending the Mississippi’s run at that point on the map. The army studies predicted in 1950 that this would happen by 1968 if it didn’t act in a major way.
Of course, the very reason there are fertile soils along the river is because the river picks them in Minnesota and Nebraska and Iowa, and deposits them in the southern states it passes through. And as long as it can change course on its own, it will continue to do so. Preventing its movements kills the goose that lays the golden egg and sends the soils into the Gulf, where dredging is a constant hassle and expense.
Worse, Winchester points out, all the land-clearing, parking lots and paved surfaces cause far more water to drain into the river instead of soaking into the soil. This measurably increases the volume of water the river carries south. Add to this the increasing number, violence and volume of stormy weather, and to very little surprise, the river surges more often than ever, flooding the plains and changing course. This only prompts more money to be spent clamping down on the river’s lifestyle, an endless cycle that will mean more damage, expense, ruin and then more army building to contain it. No one sees this as a losing proposition.
The army has put its best engineering minds on the problem, and they have come up with more and varied solutions all up and down the length. The End of the River is about the tiny stretch from the Louisiana-Mississippi state line, north for about 15 miles. In that little stretch, dams, locks, diversions and levees collar and reroute the river — for a while. The systems are monitored and maintained fulltime. Water levels are constantly measured, flood gates are raised and lowered, and walls built up. Billions are spent, and billions will continue to be spent, because the Mississippi doesn’t report to the army.
Although you’d never know that from the army’s attitude. Winchester quotes one general on the scene: “The corps of engineers can make the Mississippi go anywhere the corps directs it to go.” That he can say such a thing after 200 years of tense failures is proof enough this cannot work.
It is the same hubris that leads to cockamamie proposals to seed the upper atmosphere with shredded copper to lessen the sun’s rays, probably the most prominent of the crackpot proposals to change the climate back the way it was 300 years ago, before Man started messing with that too. All of them involve engineering wonders that have either never worked or never been tried, and are proposed at a global scale to permanently alter the course of nature forcefully. Like the Mississippi solution.
There is a tremendous amount of information in this little book. At 59 pages, it is more like a power-packed pamphlet. Winchester is direct, organized and thorough. Read with an online map open, everything falls into place. It is published by scribd.com and not available in stores. Yet.
As the Mississippi dries up and business shifts west to the Atchafalaya, Baton Rouge and New Orleans will shrivel and become irrelevant hasbeens. This will displace millions who can no longer make a living on the Mississippi south of the Louisiana state line. Ironically, this is precisely why the corps was injected into the picture in the first place. Now it will be the cause of it. Rack up another win for geoengineering.
(The End of the River, Simon Winchester, April 2020)