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New Orleans, Louisiana, USA


Tommy Plaisance, commercial shrimper

Tommy Plaisance owns his own boat and treasures his independent way of life. But the marine spawning grounds are disappearing as the nutrient-rich Mississippi waters are channeled away from the fishing grounds. On some days, his nets bring up barely enough shrimp for him to break even.

But, tomorrow, Tommy Plaisance will be back on the water, he says. Shrimping is what he loves. It's what he does best.

The delta city of New Orleans owes its very existence to the engineering transformations of the Mississippi River. Surrounded by water and wetlands, the city is ringed with a levee system that has been under construction for almost three hundred years. Much of New Orleans lies below sea level. Without its twenty foot walls, the city would be devastated by periodic floods or a major hurricane.

Wetlands near New Orleans

Wetlands near New Orleans

Not very long ago, New Orleans almost became a backwater swamp when the Mississippi River showed signs of naturally changing its course. If the river was allowed to carve a new path to the Gulf of Mexico, away from New Orleans, the port would become a dry-dock. The Corps of Engineers was called in, this time to prevent the river from changing course. Their intentions were sincere, and no one questions that New Orleans had to be saved, but, as the citizens of Grafton learned, the Mississippi can drive a hard bargain.

Scientists tell us that the levees are causing Louisiana's coastal wetlands to fall apart. Just a few years ago, a bay was a sugar beet farm; a marina, a pasture for grazing cattle.

In the past, the sediment-laden waters of the Mississippi were free to flow across the marshes of the Louisiana delta. Over time, the thick alluvial soils became fertile farm and ranch lands. The coastal marshes and wetlands became prime breeding grounds and nurseries for birds and animals. Now, scientists tell us that the levees are causing Louisiana's coastal wetlands to fall apart. Just a few years ago, a bay was a sugar beet farm; a marina, a pasture for grazing cattle.

Video Excerpt: Thanks to the expertise of the Corps of Engineers, New Orleans remains a major port city on the Mississippi. This tampering with the river's course, however, has resulted in devastating consequences to the Mississippi Delta.
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The loss of wetlands along the Mississippi Delta is devastating. Ancient cypress forests are dying because of salt water intrusion. Dead oak trees are grim reminders of a once healthy coastline. It is a serious abuse of a river system when each year over 25 square miles of Louisiana coastland are washed away.

Louisiana is also home to a vibrant Cajun culture. Cajuns came down from Canada over two hundred and fifty years ago, in search of religious freedom. They also discovered a way of life tied to a great river. From the very beginning the Cajuns earned their living working the coastal waters of the delta.

Fishing in the bayous

Fishing in the bayous

Lately, the bayous have become watery graves for an industry in peril. Also in jeopardy is the Cajun culture. As the land changes and the wetland areas decrease, the Cajuns can't sustain themselves from fishing alone and have to look elsewhere for their livelihood, inherently changing the culture of the area.

The construction of levees on the Mississippi River to stop flooding and to maintain navigation has had unintended consequences. Now, armed with a greater understanding those consequences, there is hope that others will take this lesson and apply it elsewhere to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Editor's note: This essay was published in April 1999, well before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005.



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