Re-Engineering Mississippi River Could Help Gulf

The mighty Mississippi River may be the only thing with the enduring power to clean the marshes and waterways damaged by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But to put the river to work requires a massive rerouting of the waterway not a piece meal approach.

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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Oil Imperils Native American Town, And Way Of Life

Rosina Phillipe on a flatboat in Grand Bayou i

Rosina Phillipe on a flatboat in Grand Bayou, La. She is the spokeswoman for the tiny Native American community that is struggling to hold on to its livelihood since the oil spill. John Burnett/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Burnett/NPR
Rosina Phillipe on a flatboat in Grand Bayou

Rosina Phillipe on a flatboat in Grand Bayou, La. She is the spokeswoman for the tiny Native American community that is struggling to hold on to its livelihood since the oil spill.

John Burnett/NPR

Grand Bayou, La., is a tiny fishing village of Native Americans in the vast wetlands south of New Orleans. You can only get there by boat. Before the Cajuns, Spanish, French and Americans came, the ancestors of the people of Grand Bayou were living in the marsh, catching seafood. And the folks there today are still doing the same thing.

But now they’re scared, because the Gulf oil catastrophe is encroaching.

The Roots Are Deep

The people of Grand Bayou tend to stay put. Like 66-year-old fisherman Raymond Reyes, with his shaggy white hair and a cross tattooed on his leathery, brown biceps.

"Why leave heaven and go to hell? This is heaven here. Y'know?" Reyes says. "I tried in Texas and I can't make it. All I seen was cement and Mexicans. I can't understand Mexican and I don’t like cement. I like water."

For the surviving members of the Atakapa-Ishak people, water is their identity. They're one of the small Native American tribes that still live on the bayous and marshes of southeast Louisiana. While other marsh residents have taken jobs in the oil and chemical industries, the people of Grand Bayou resolutely try to live as their forebears did — fishing, shrimping, oystering, crabbing and trapping.

"Welcome to summertime in Louisiana," says Rosina Phillipe, the 54-year-old spokeswoman for the village. She's in her flatboat, wearing colorful jewelry and her hair in a long black braid.

"This is Grand Bayou, the village. And these are some of the homes damaged during Hurricane Katrina," Phillipe says.

Before Katrina, 23 extended families lived in Grand Bayou. The hurricane’s epic tide and wind decimated the little fishing outpost.

By this spring, Grand Bayou was just beginning to get back on its feet. In the past five years, volunteers from Mennonite Disaster Services have rebuilt homes for nine families, with more planned.

But the oil spill has jeopardized the village’s recovery. Residents who've been gone since Katrina are questioning whether it's worth moving back if they can't fish the bayou.

The Next Challenge

Phillipe moved into her newly built house on stilts last August. She climbs the stairs to a simply furnished living room cooled by ceiling fans.

She's pressed for time. Phillipe was planning to fly to Washington, D.C., in the afternoon to impress upon Louisiana's members of Congress and anyone else who'll listen that the oil slick threatens the very existence of her indigenous community.

"Grand Bayou for us is our place in the universe. This is where since time began the Creator saw fit to set our feet here. And we're going to do whatever we have to do to remain," Phillipe says.

But what can they do? Fishermen say the oil slick is merely 35 minutes away from Grand Bayou by boat. Like the people of other coastal communities, they don’t know how long their shrimp and oyster grounds will be off-limits or whether their waterways will be poisoned.

The Marsh Is Their Provider

But unlike other coastal communities, Grand Bayou depends on the water not just for its livelihood, but for its daily sustenance.

"We've never faced this before. No matter what happened before, at the very least we were able to feed ourselves. That’s been taken away from us. That’s serious, that’s real serious," Phillipe says.

This is an American community whose residents have not grown accustomed to running to the supermarket to buy ingredients for supper. As village elder Ruby Ancar says, the marsh is their provider. "One of the things my dad told me, the only thing that a Grand Bayou person needed from the grocery store was sugar, coffee and milk — oh, and rice, yes," Ancar says.

The waters of Grand Bayou have also traditionally provided recreation for the Atakapa-Ishak people — who are, today, a mixture of Native American, black and Cajun. Some still speak French at home.

Phillipe's 18-year-old daughter, Ani, a budding environmentalist, says she never wants to leave this bayou. "You just go out in the marsh and it's freedom. We were out chasing the porpoises in boat, we were alongside the boat and we were just riding with them up the whole way just up and down the bayou. I mean stuff like that you can’t do anywhere else," Ani says.

Though the village has dwindled in size, it has hung on despite a host of threats — violent ones like hurricanes, and gradual ones like cultural dispersion. Rosina Phillipe cannot imagine living anywhere else.

"We are who we are because of where we are. We are Grand Bayou people, and you can’t be a Grand Bayou person if you’re living in Ohio," Phillipe says, letting out a slight laugh.

She’s going to Washington because she believes the Atakapa-Ishak have to find a way to survive this latest calamity. She says she owes it to her ancestors.

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