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Its tributaries spanning Montana to New York and its main channel from Minnesota to Louisiana, the Mississippi River is the biggest in North America and the second largest in the Americas behind the Amazon. The river drains much of the interior of North America and shapes the land through sediment erosion and deposition, building an alluvial landmass from Cairo, Illinois down to the marshes of South Louisiana. At its mouth, where thousands of square miles of land owe their tenuous existence to the whims of the river’s choice of outlet, the river builds up and abandons deltaic lobes every few centuries. Every day hundreds of thousands of tons of sediment are moved by the river off the continent and into the Gulf.
The Mississippi valley was the site of the largest urban populations in pre-Columbian America, the Cahokian mound-building states. The river was a crucial transportation link connecting the middle United States to the rest of the world in the 19th century. New Orleans became the hub of this vast commercial system made possible by the introduction of steamboats that could move against the river’s current. This “destruction of space by time” greatly accelerated travel throughout the region and connected forestry and farming across a vast expanse to markets.
The steamboat revolution also resulted in hazardous travel on the Mississippi, as the large number of trees pulled into the river by erosion formed many snags that were hard to detect and readily sank boats that ran into them. In the 1830s the entrepreneur Henry Shreve operated a fleet that pulled up many of these snags and directed crews of loggers who cleared riverside trees. This widespread deforestation made steamboat navigation much safer while it accelerated the rate of soil erosion along the river, already increased by expanding agriculture and land clearing throughout the river’s eastern reaches. Thus by the 1840s the river was already greatly shaped by human action, but was certainly not tamed.
Levees along the river were constructed from the time of French colonization of Louisiana in the 18th century, and gradually expanded in length and height. Periodic severe floods overwhelmed levees, leading to increasing federal involvement. In 1849 and 1850, the Swamp Land Acts gave federal land to the states for the purpose of funding levee improvements to reclaim the vast swamps in the river valley and protect existing development.
Proponents of a “levees only policy” won a long and sometimes bitter engineering argument on the proper means of controlling flooding. Levees-only proponents argued against the maintenance of multiple outlets for river overflow because keeping the river in a narrow channel would keep the river scoured of obstructions and deepen it to accommodate floodwaters. The levees-only approach also served to maximize the area that could be reclaimed from swamps for plantation agriculture and coincided with the confidence proponents felt that science and technology could make the river do their bidding.
Such confidence in engineering was bolstered by the success of James Eads in 1876 opening up the sandbars that blocked deep draft ship access to the mouth of the river. By means of a jetty that constricted the river’s flow at its mouth, the river pushed away the bars and opened the channel without costly dredging, allowing for an explosion of shipping tonnage at the port of New Orleans that placed that city on par with the largest ports in the world.
On the upper Mississippi, as railroad trusts expanded into the Midwest and plains from Chicago, farmers sought relief from their monopolistic practices and turned to river transport. Making the river channel at least four-and-a-half feet to handle barges was key to this strategy. The Army Corps of Engineers built wing and closing dams to constrict the channel and thus deepen it. By 1906 rising rail fees and declining river traffic led to a push for a six-foot channel. Agricultural crisis and problems of soil erosion caused by excessive constriction of the river led to a movement for a nine-foot channel. The channel was later created by locks and dams that raised the entire river level, and was completed by 1940.
Throughout this time, growing conservationist interests lobbied for protecting the river’s water quality and wildlife, sponsoring the creation of wildlife refuges and working against channel deepening. The nine-foot river did not create the ecological disaster some opponents predicted, but the upper Mississippi’s compartmentalization into reservoirs greatly reduced sediment loads going downstream, blocked the migration of fish, and reduced the seasonal expansion and contraction of the river by keeping water levels constant. Barge traffic on the upper river carrying coal, soybeans, and corn down river has expanded so much that traffic backups are increasing costs for farmers competing in world markets. This has led to a new showdown between proponents of expanding the lock and dam structures for more traffic and environmentalists who argue the river is already too burdened by the demands of navigation.
The security afforded by levees against flooding was always fragile, as crevasses again and again broke through levees in the years after the Civil War. Flood heights increased as levees continued to climb and constrain the channel, but after 1900 people seemed to be getting the river under control. In 1927 the river showed this was not the case. Heavy rains upstream led to record flood heights and massive levee breaks that marched southward as millions of acres of land and homes were flooded out from Kentucky down to the Arkansas and Mississippi delta and huge stretches of Louisiana.
The callousness, brutality, and inadequacy of local and federal response led to the resurgence of populist politics in the country, from Huey Long’s gubernatorial victory the following year in Louisiana to the activist New Deal replacing Hoover’s lukewarm response to the flood and the Depression. This political upheaval was motivated by actions like the New Orleans city fathers’ decision to dynamite a levee east of the city and flood out rural St. Bernard parish and the holding of black sharecroppers on the tops of levees without supplies or clean water, surrounded by flood waters, instead of evacuating them to higher ground, for fear they might leave Mississippi altogether if given the chance.
The 1927 flood forced the Army Corps to build outlets into its flood control strategy even as the 1928 Flood Control Act gave the Corps more power to intensify control over the river. Presently, the lower Mississippi has several outlets such as the Bonne Carre and Atchafalaya spillways.
The Atchafalaya, a distributary of the Mississippi, now threatens to take the main flow of the river away from New Orleans and is only prevented from doing so by the Old River Control Structure, a massive dam complex that almost failed in a 1973 flood.
The industrialization of the river has led to serious problems of water quality as complexes like the chemical corridor in Louisiana have located on the river’s shores. Since the 1930s, Louisiana’s coastal wetlands have declined in size by some 1,900 square miles, in part due to the loss of upstream sediments and their diversion into the open gulf by the channelizing of the delta, as well as the effects of oil and gas development and wetlands reclamation in the region.
A “dead zone” of hypoxic water averaging 4,800 square miles caused by nitrogen and phosphorous enrichment from fertilizer use in the upper valley forms each year offshore of the Mississippi’s outfall. Despite efforts to compartmentalize the Mississippi river system, it continues to be a linked system, and solutions to the problems facing the river and the people who depend on it require the scaling up of efforts to match the interconnectedness of all the river’s parts.
- Anfinson, The River We Have Wrought: A History of the Upper Mississippi (University of Minnesota Press, 2003);
- Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (Simon and Schuster, 1997);
- Colten, ed., Transforming New Orleans and Its Environs (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).