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Coastal News Roundup: The Challenges And Opportunities Of The Mississippi River

Travis Lux
One of the challenges posed by the river is that it wants to change course to the Atchafalaya. The Army Corps of Engineers has constructed a complex of structures north of Baton Rouge to try to keep that from happening..

From flooding to commerce to recreation -- the Mississippi River poses all kinds of challenges and opportunities for those who live along its banks.

Travis Lux, WWNO Coastal Reporter, and Sara Sneath, environment reporter for | The Times-Picayune, spent this past week traveling along the river with a group of journalists from around the country. The trip was made possible by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg -- all the way down to the river’s mouth.

The reporters’ big takeaway? The river impacts a lot of people in a lot of different ways.

This week on the Coastal News Roundup, Sara and Travis talk about how river constriction might be making flooding worse, and how the small town of Cairo, IL hopes building a river port will revive the town.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity:

Travis Lux: We started our trip in St. Louis, and it was a super interesting time to see the river because the river has been at flood stage for months. So as we made our way down the river it was still really high.

Sara Sneath: And it looks like the water here in New Orleans is rising again. The Army Corps of Engineers might have to open the Bonnet Carre Spillway just upriver from New Orleans again to help discharge some of that flood water into Lake Pontchartrain.

TL: That would be a really big deal.

SS: Yeah it would, because it would be the first time ever that the spillway would be opened twice in the same year.

TL: Let’s talk about some of the big themes of the trip. What stood out to you?

SS: It’s super interesting how for some people the river is a threat, and for others it’s an opportunity.

TL: Right. We started this conversation talking about flooding, which is the main way the river is a threat. We know from studying geology that the river has always flooded -- for thousands of years. Every year, every couple years, rains would come and the river would swell then fall back down. But in recent years, we’ve been seeing more and more flooding up and down the Mississippi River, and along other rivers that feed into it (like the Missouri River).

SS: Right. And there are lots of reasons why that could be happening. Impervious surfaces -- which means less water retention on the ground when it rains. Climate change is contributing to more rainfall in the north. But the biggest reason might simply be human engineering.

We talked to Bob Criss -- an emeritus professor and hydrologist at Washington University in St. Louis. He had a lot of opinions about the river, and described it “as featureless as a strand of spaghetti on a plate.”

TL: Basically, he says that over the last 100 years or so, we’ve over-managed the Mississippi River. Before we built levees up and down the river to protect us from flooding, the river would meander and snake all over the place. But the levees we’ve built to protect ourselves from flooding have sort of pinched the river. Criss believes that that is the main reason we’re seeing flooding so often these days.

SS: Yeah, it’s like if your arteries are clogged up with fat and cholesterol they become narrower, which causes higher blood pressure and excess strain on your body. The same could be said of a narrower river, which forces the same amount of water into a smaller channel. The water has nowhere to go but up.

TL: So that’s how the river can be seen as a threat. But the tiny river town of Cairo, Illinois sees the Mississippi as an opportunity. Cairo is basically where the Ohio River dumps into the Mississippi River and it’s at this convergence that it becomes the Mighty Mississippi we know it to be down river. Basically Cairo is where it gets huge.

SS: The story of Cairo is the story of a lot of small towns. It’s population has dwindled to about 2,000. They don’t have a gas station. No grocery store. But they do have the river, with all its barges and ship traffic. They want to cash in on that ship traffic. Build a port from scratch, get ships to stop there. Bring back jobs, bring back the town. Dale Fowler, who represents Cairo in the Illinois state legislature, is excited about the town’s future.

Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
Larry Klein, general manager for the Cairo Public Utility Company (left) and Dale Fowler, State Senator for Illinois district 59 (right) talk about their hopes for building a port in the small town of Cairo, IL. Cairo's population has dwindled over the last few decades, and some local officials want to take advantage of their location on the Mississippi River and all the barges that use it as a shipping superhighway.

“I think we're on the brink of really revitalizing this [town],” he said. “Not just Cairo, not just Alexander County, but southern Illinois.”

TL: Officials in Cairo are basically putting all their eggs in this basket. One official referred to the port as their salvation.

SS: Yeah, which is interesting because in 2011 the town experienced the threat of the river. Farmland had to be flooded in order to save the town. So even for Cairo, the river is both things at once:  threat and opportunity.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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