E.G. Vallianatos

Unshackle the Mississippi

Seeing New Orlean''s under water was painful. I lived for a year in that beautiful city, teaching environmental studies at the University of New Orleans. I had the opportunity to visit much more than the French Quarter. I flew with a hydroplane over the mouths of the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya Rivers, exploring the vulnerable land down to the Gulf Coast. My students and I traveled north and south, seeing the incredible beauty, environmental devastation and poverty of Louisiana.

Louisiana is part of the Gulf of Mexico, a huge region endowed by 33 major rivers, 207 estuaries and about 4 million acres of wetlands. About 75% of the migrating waterfowl in the US use the Gulf's wetlands as a critical habitat. Other birds, like gulls, terns and shorebirds nest and feed year-round on the numerous mudflats, salt marshes, mangrove swamps and barrier beaches on the Gulf.

More than 50% of the continental US drains into the Gulf by way of the Mississippi River. This river also created southern Louisiana. Its delta is home to some 40% of the coastal wetlands found in America. It is in these marshes that genesis is taking place daily: Countless water animals and birds come to life and develop in the delta marshlands.

Yet developers and farmers destroy thousands of acres of wetlands every year. Giant agriculture uses more than 85% of those lost wetlands. Since the 1970s, in the Mississippi delta, about 30 to 35 square miles of wetlands are gone forever every year -- an ecological catastrophe, which, in about 35 years, will make New Orleans, if it still exists, an oceanfront denuded place.

The delta disaster is entirely man-made. It is 300 years old. Since the 18th century when the Europeans stole Louisiana from Native Americans, the conquerors have been waging a war against nature. With levees on both banks of the Mississippi River, people have shackled the mighty river to a regulated stream for commerce. In addition, private property owners in southern Louisiana, chemical factories along the Mississippi River, and cities are not drowned in the spring floods of the river. But nature does not exist for the ephemeral pleasures and benefits of people.

The Mississippi's sediment and fresh water were the very roots of creation of the delta. Now that they no longer keep the delta above sea level and they no longer renew the vegetation and life of the coastal marshes, the entire delta, product of a millennial evolution, is inexorably being poisoned by salt water and the massive pollutants of the farmers and the petrochemical industry. It is eaten away by relentless attack of ocean waves.

We know that wetlands purify water and check the climatic orgies of nature like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that, for all practical purposes, annihilated New Orleans. These natural disasters were especially violent because they picked up extra energy from global warming, which the United States ignores. Katrina and Rita were more than a divine punishment for America, responsible for 25% of the greenhouse gasses warming the planet. If we go on with such irresponsible and immoral policies, nature will hit us with more vengeance.

On a local scale, the destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast ought to convince governments, farmers and developers that wetlands are precious in their own right and, therefore, those who destroy them should be beyond the pale of our culture.

There will be no future in the Louisiana coast without unshackling the Mississippi River, at least south of New Orleans, making it possible for the mighty river to rebuild its delta. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has no intention of defending Louisiana's coastal wetlands or of letting nature defend New Orleans, in which case, people ought to abandon New Orleans now. Business as usual, even if that means erecting taller levees around the Mississippi River, will not protect New Orleans from another drowning.

It is dangerous fighting futile wars against nature.

E.G. Vallianatos, former analyst with the US Environmental Protection Agency, is author of This Land is their Land: How Corporate Farms Threaten the World, set for January 2006 publication by Common Courage Press.

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2006

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