The Mississippi Flood Could Hit “America's Achilles' Heel” The Mississippi Flood Could Hit “America's Achilles' Heel”
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The Mississippi Flood Could Hit “America's Achilles' Heel”

by Ben Jervey

May 21, 2011

Basically, any river always wants to take the shortest and steepest route possible to its outlet. The Mississippi is no different, and since long before humans were around, it has jumped its banks every 1,000 years or so and charted a new, more desirable course. The image above shows the contrast between the long history of change in the Mississippi, and the Army Corp's plans for peak flow rates during massive 1-in-500 year floods. (Peter ran a nice full-length version of that first map in his post about the flooding Mississippi's impact on fish.) Sometime in the 1970s, the Mississippi River would’ve jumped its course and dumped into the much more inviting Atchafalaya River basin.

Masters explains:

The mighty Mississippi River keeps on rollin’ along its final 300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans—but unwillingly. There is a better way to the Gulf—150 miles shorter, and more than twice as steep. This path lies down the Atchafalaya River, which connects to the Mississippi at a point 45 miles north-northwest of Baton Rouge, 300 river miles from the Gulf of Mexico Delta. Each year, the path down the Atchafalaya grows more inviting.

The only thing preventing the river from taking that path is the Old River Control Structure. If that is compromised or breached, the impact would be enormous. The Mississippi would probably have a permanent new route to the Gulf of Mexico, and Baton Rouge and New Orleans—and all the towns in between—would be “stranded on a salt water estuary, with no fresh water to supply their people and industry.”

I really can't recommend highly enough that you read Masters' post in full. America's Achilles' heel is about to face its greatest test.

Top photo by NOAA. Bottom image by Weather Underground.

Ben Jervey More Info

Ben is a writer and editor covering climate change, energy, and environment, and is currently the Climate and Energy Media Fellow at Vermont Law School. He was the original Environment Editor at GOOD Magazine and his work has appeared regularly in National Geographic News, Grist, DeSmogBlog, and OnEarth. He recently worked with the non-profit Focus the Nation to publish an Energy 101 primer. When living in New York City, he wrote a book, The Big Green Apple, on how to live a lower impact life in the city. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.
Some recent articles by Ben Jervey:
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The Mississippi Flood Could Hit “America's Achilles' Heel”