Re-Engineering Mississippi River Could Help Gulf
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
Now, in his Oval Office speech this week, President Obama said the region was suffering from both natural and manmade disasters long before the BP spill.
President BARACK OBAMA: Beyond compensating the people of the Gulf in the short-term, it's also clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region.
AMOS: The president appointed Navy Secretary and former Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus to develop a long-term restoration plan.
As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, that could even include changing the way the Mississippi River empties into the gulf.
SCOTT HORSLEY: The river Mark Twain supposedly described as too thick to drink, too thin to plow, is loaded with rich Midwestern soil.
Environmental law Professor Oliver Houck says for most of the river's history that soil provided regular nourishment to Louisiana's coastal marshes.
Professor OLIVER HOUCK (Tulane University): The Mississippi carries 64,000 tons of sediment a day. Can you imagine the number of dump trucks it would take to bring that down from Illinois and Ohio and North Dakota? I mean it's a big conveyor belt of land, and we're wasting it.
HORSLEY: Houck says wasting it because thanks to 20th century efforts to tame the erratic river, that sediment is now carried deep into the Gulf of Mexico. Denied their regular replenishment, wetlands have been disappearing at a rapid rate. Environmental experts have talked for years about reengineering the Mississippi outflow.
Wetlands expert Denise Reed of the University of New Orleans says the spotlight shined by the BP oil spill just might offer that chance.
Professor DENISE REED (University of New Orleans): This place is huge. This place is valuable. It's been going to hell in a hand basket for more than 50 years. And now it's going to get attention. Rightfully so. We have to have solutions here that are all at the scale of the problem.
HORSLEY: President Obama offered few specifics about his Gulf Coast restoration plan. But historian Douglas Brinkley, who's written extensively about both presidents and Louisiana, sees a political opportunity here for Mr. Obama.
Mr. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (Historian): He needs to sell this as a great American project. That water down there is America's waters. This is water from the Ohio River and the Missouri and from the Arkansas and the Minnesota. All of that sediment comes down from our rich farmlands. That's why the fishing is so rich.
HORSLEY: To be sure, redirecting even a portion of the river would be a major undertaking. Shipping traffic would have to be accommodated somehow. And Houck, who teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans, says the political challenge is every bit as daunting as the engineering.
Prof. HOUCK: Politically, here's the question: Just how much of the river are we going to be willing to set free, because lots of people's oxen get gored.
HORSLEY: And, of course, there's the question of how to pay for such a project. Fines levied against BP could be a starting point, but Houck says other oil and gas companies should also pony up for the damage they've done to the wetlands with their energy pipelines.
Don Briggs, who heads the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, says his members already contribute to coastal restoration. And Briggs warns that future payments are now in jeopardy thanks to the federal moratorium on deepwater drilling.
Mr. DON BRIGGS (Louisiana Oil and Gas Association): When you get perfectly honest with the situation, the president's administration is not one that favors fossil fuels or is friendly to the oil and gas industry at all.
HORSLEY: President Obama promised to include businesses, fishermen, environmentalists and others in developing a restoration plan. If it actually happens, Houck says, it could be one of Mr. Obama's signature moves.
Prof. HOUCK: It's going to be the largest public works project in certainly Louisiana history and maybe in the American South. That's a lot of jobs and that's a lot of money. And you put that in the hands of Louisianans, I mean, wow.
HORSLEY: Environmentalists don't expect quick results. But over time, they say, sediment from the river could help to build up natural barrier islands, like the ones Louisiana's now constructing to combat the oil spill.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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