Day 1: Introduction to the Mississippi

St. Louis

We kicked off the Institute with a dinner session in St. Louis, learning about the Mississippi River that we have created through engineering.

The River We Have Wrought

The Mississippi (thanks, in large part to the Missouri River, which joins the flow just upstream of St. Louis) drains nearly 40 percent of the contiguous United States. By the time the Ohio River enters the picture, the lower Mississippi is a force of nature. The power of these rivers was on display this spring as the Missouri flooded the Midwest and high water hit the Mississippi Delta. The uncomfortable relationship between the river and people living along its banks dates back beyond 1,000 AD, when nearby Cahokia Mounds was home to nearly 20,000 citizens who regularly dealt with floods. While the river today is a much different beast – an extensively engineered system of locks and dams, levees, dikes and channels – flood concerns still remind us, as Bob Criss likes to say, “you can’t control the rivers, they control us.”

Day 2: River Engineering, Shipping, and a Reimagined Town

St. Louis:

Keeping the River Where We Want It: Shipping, Flood Control and the Army Corps

Just south of downtown St. Louis sits the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Applied River Engineering Lab, where research is conducted that helps the Corps, as they call it, “train” the river. River training has been the Corps’ responsibility since 1824, when federal legislation mandated that the Corps improve the Mississippi and Ohio rivers both for the interests of navigation and shipping and for the benefit of communities in nearby flood-prone areas. We toured the lab to get a glimpse of what river engineering looks like nearly 200 years later and talked about the current Corps philosophy in meeting their mandate.

How the Mississippi Connects America’s Breadbasket to Global Ports

The Mississippi River is the critical link between U.S.-grown corn and soybeans and international ports. In a country where production costs far exceed those of global competitors, the ease and affordability of getting products to market keeps Midwest farmers in the game. It’s been a hard year for producers, however, thanks to a trade war with China and flood-stage water levels on the river, which slow river traffic and force shippers to reduce barge sizes. We toured the Cargill grain elevator in East St. Louis and learned how grain gets to market, what keeps the shipping industry competitive and why ports like St. Louis are vital to American agriculture.

Cairo, IL
Life at the Confluence: Cairo Embraces the Promise and Perils of the Mississippi River

On May 2nd, 2011, Tyrone Coleman was sworn in as mayor of Cairo as the Mississippi strained town levees and nearly overtopped flood walls. That same night, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers detonated an upstream levee, sending flood waters into Missouri farmland and saving Cairo from an epic flood. We’ll learn about the policies that led to the levee breach as well as the debate that slowed Army Corps action as we tour new infrastructure installed after 2011 that makes Cairo, as Mayor Coleman says, “a community that survives by way of pump stations, walls and levees.”

Last fall, $1 million was carved out of the Illinois state budget to plan and design a port in Cairo. While it may seem surprising that such a facility doesn’t already exist in a town that sits right at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Cairo has a history of corrupt governance, racially driven policies and extreme poverty that have prevented it from capitalizing on its greatest asset. Now this struggling town hopes a new port can reverse its fortunes – or at least stop the slide.

Day 3: Environmental Justice and Mississippi Paddling


The Past Isn’t Past: The Indelible History and Current Struggle for Environmental Justice in Memphis

The largest (single) city on the Mississippi River, Memphis has an important place in the history of race and justice in America. In fact, it’s a story that’s still being written. The sanitation workers’ strike in 1968 is considered one of the initial battles in the fight against environmental racism and was the cause that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to town in what would be his final days. Today, environmental justice struggles still involve trash – often involving the siting of toxic landfills near predominantly black communities. One recent battle in Memphis pitted a construction company’s proposed demolition landfill against the predominantly black neighborhood that would have been forced to deal with its impacts. As is often the case, community organizing centered around the efforts of a church, and residents successfully blocked development of the project. We heard the story of the battle as we shared breakfast with the people who fought it and talk about what other issues loom.

Helena, AR

When We Say “Get Out There,” We Mean It: Paddling the Mighty (Flooded) Mississippi

Too often when assigned a story, an environment reporter must settle for phone calls and Google searches to piece together information on a landscape they’ve never experienced first-hand. After today, our group of intrepid reporters won’t have that problem with the lower Mississippi River. We stopped in Helena at the Quapaw Canoe Company, where we had the opportunity to embark on a canoe trip out on the mighty Mississippi.

Telling Environment Stories Better: Tales Around the Campfire

Natural resource stories are some of the hardest to fit into the usual journalism mold. Or, as our esteemed founder always put it, “they don’t break, they ooze.” Adding to the difficulty, journalists have now traded the role of gatekeepers for one of sifters and winnowers in our digital world – finding facts in a deluge of information, often doing so outside of the walls of a traditional newsroom. Speaking of which – at the end of a long day in such newsrooms, it’s not like the environment reporter gets to go grab a drink with all of the other environment reporters and talk shop. They’re usually either the only person on the beat or, more and more, sitting at home in their PJs freelancing. We took this rare opportunity of having so many like-minded reporters in one space to start an informal conversation exploring some of the difficulties of doing good journalism on complex issues and to talk tips and tricks for getting the most out of our reporting and writing.

Day 4: Floods, Farms, Flyways and Forests

Helena, AR

When the Levee(s) Break: How the ’27 Flood Shaped a Nation

The rich land of the Delta has sustained humans for millennia but became especially important in the 1800s as cotton and sugarcane growers built an economy on the backs of slaves and sharecroppers. The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 obliterated 145 levees, inundated 27,000 square miles of this prime farming land and forced 600,000 people from their homes. The event profoundly changed the U.S. as, in the aftermath of the flood, hundreds of thousands of mostly black sharecroppers began a decades-long migration from the agricultural south to the industrial north. Fellows took a couple hours to check out the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Ark., for an overview of this seminal event.

Sumner, MS

The Farm Bill and the Flyway: How the Mississippi Connects Delta Farmers, National Non-Profits and Hunters Far and Wide

It’s not every day that you get hunters, farmers and environmentalists in the same room – much less on the same page. But that’s exactly what’s happening as multiple stakeholders work to manage the great Mississippi flyway. Each year, in addition to all of those sweet-singing Neotropical migrants, millions upon millions of ducks and geese use the Mississippi River and its surrounding floodplain as a migration corridor. In fact, nearly 40 percent of North American waterfowl and 60 percent of all U.S. bird species use the flyway for migration or to overwinter. It’s an impressive statistic, but the numbers it reflects used to be even more mind- boggling; Over the last 100 years, while much of the lower Mississippi floodplain was converted to other uses – primarily agricultural production for cotton and rice – the habitat and food sources waterfowl needed dried up. As their population numbers plummeted, conservationists, especially hunters, took action. We met up with some folks from Ducks Unlimited to hear about the nationwide efforts that helped reverse the trend and headed out into the field (literally) to see how farmers are playing a crucial role in conservation.

Bringing Back a Fragmented Flooded Forest

The historic floodplain of the lower Mississippi, called the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, stretches from the southern tip of Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. Once, it boasted 24.7 million acres of forested wetlands that had evolved within the unpredictable ebb and flow of the Mississippi. Levees cut these lands off from the Mississippi floods that sustained them and allowed farmers to clear the now-dry land for the plow. Today, only about 20 percent of this habitat remains, but it still provides crucial cover from predators and cold snaps for migratory ducks and it is also home to a host of threatened or endangered species – from songbirds to sturgeon to the Louisiana black bear.

Day 5: Environment Stories, River Control, and Modeling

Vicksburg, MS

Telling Environment Stories Better: The Sequel

We had already kicked this larger discussion off around our campfire a couple of nights ago, but this morning we dug further in to what it means to cover the environment beat these days. We explored useful tools that can help journalists investigate issues, tell stories better and reach a wider audience. We also talked about how, even with the sea-change the Internet has wrought, the fundamentals of top-notch journalism haven’t changed.

Point Breeze, LA

The Old River Control Structure: Solving a Problem or Postponing the Inevitable?

At the beginning of the 1900s, the Atchafalaya River siphoned off 10 percent of the Mississippi River’s flow via a section of an old oxbow that is now called the Lower Old River. From that point, the Atchafalaya flowed 150 miles to the Gulf of Mexico compared to the 300 meandering miles it took the Mississippi to get there. That meant the Atchafalaya had a much greater downhill slope – irresistible to a substance motivated by gravity. As the Mississippi flowed into the Old River it scoured out the river bed and widening the channel, allowing the Atchafalaya to receive even more of its flow. If left alone, the Atchafalaya would be overtaken and become the new main stem of the Mississippi. The problem was, Baton Rouge and New Orleans held crucially important ports to the nation’s burgeoning petrochemical industry and the lower Mississippi had been engineered to facilitate shipping in its current channel. The solution, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, was the Old River Control Structure, a dam and spillway that allows the Corps to control the amount of water flowing out of the Mississippi and down the Atchafalaya. In 1973 a flood nearly caused the failure of the structure, which would have allowed the Mississippi to set a new course. The Corps maintains that improvements made in the wake of that event eliminated that threat. But some studies suggest that, eventually, the Mississippi is going to win the war to hold it back. We stopped to see the Old River Control Structure, and get a sense of how it works - even amidst impressive floodwaters.

Baton Rouge, LA

Can a Giant Model of the Mississippi Help Us Make Better Choices in the Real-Life Watershed?

When it opened last year, the LSU Center for River Studies had one showcase piece of equipment like nothing else in the world: a basketball-court- sized model of the lower Mississippi River. Crafted to be perfectly proportionate and topographically precise, the model allows researchers to send water and “sediment” downstream to model how different water levels and the opening and closing of various diversions impacts the Louisiana marshes that are built and maintained by Mississippi sediments. We got a demonstration of the model in action and then heard about wetland loss in Louisiana and the state’s efforts to reverse the trend.

Day 6: Cancer Alley, Coastal Restoration and Cultural Revitalization

Reserve, LA

Environmental Justice in Cancer Alley: Living on a River Shaped by Plantations and Petrochemicals

The Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was once bordered by the thin rectangular parcels of land where plantation owners forced slaves to grow and harvest sugarcane and cotton that could be easily shipped downriver to market. Now those 85 miles of river are home to nearly 150 petroleum and chemical industry facilities –and Louisiana’s lax environmental regulations. There is a long legacy of human health impacts in what’s become known as “Cancer Alley,” and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) has led the push to recognize the human health impacts of siting heavy industry so close to residential homes. LEAN has helped change regulations to give some of Louisiana’s most underrepresented communities a voice12 n. We spent the morning with LEAN’s founder and discussed past accomplishments and ongoing concerns. Our first stop was Reserve, where residents are dealing with emissions of chloroprene, a byproduct of the synthetic rubber being made at the nearby Dupont/Denka plant.

St. James Parish, LA

When Industrial and Residential Zones Intersect: The Story of St. James

In 2014, St. James Parish adopted a new land-use plan that designated district 5 as industrial. The move paved the way for existing industry – primarily oil and gas – to expand and new industry to move in. But a lot of people still live and work in the area and now find themselves pressed up against oil storage tanks and gas flares. We talked with residents about how they’re dealing with the changes and efforts to relocate – including a new project LEAN is launching to facilitate fair relocations when industrial impacts make homes uninhabitable.

Atchafalaya Bay, LA

The Chitimacha Tribe: 21st-Century Challenges on Ancestral Homelands

The Chitimacha Tribe has occupied the Louisiana Coast for millennia, farming and exploiting the watery landscape’s rich natural resources. But 1930s-era levee projects, a response to the historic 1927 flood, have isolated Lake Chitimacha from the Atchafalaya system. In this case, the levees aren’t starving the landscape of sediment, they’re actually causing sediment buildup where water once flowed freely. Consequently, the once-rich waters of the Chitimacha people have degraded. Today the tribe, along with the state of Louisiana and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, are working to restore the swamp ecosystem that nourished the Chitimacha long before turn-of-the-century infrastructure projects came into play. We headed out on the water to see some of these projects first-hand.

Charenton, LA

Bringing a Language Back to Life

Like other Native languages, the Chitimacha tongue was nearly lost to history. But when tribal members unearthed audio recordings of the language in action, they assembled surviving elders and began the slow process of putting it back together piece by piece. Now it’s part of the Chitimachas’ cultural education – and making a comeback. We did dinner and a movie: screening a film about language restoration with the woman who led the effort.

Day 7: Delta Restoration, Flyover, and the Port of New Orleans

New Orleans, LA

Building Barrier Islands, Diverting Mississippi Sediments, and Fighting Wetland Loss in the Delta

In a quintessential story of unintended consequences, keeping the Mississippi within its banks has had dire impacts on coastal Louisiana. The sediment “Big Muddy” carries from the interior of the country no longer gets deposited in the Mississippi Delta. Instead of fanning out and allowing all that silt to settle and form new land, the Mississippi now blasts its sediments out into the Gulf of Mexico where the most promising weapon against coastal erosion is lost at sea. Without the land- building services of the Mississippi, and combined with things like rising sea levels and countless oil and gas canals carved into the landscape, the Mississippi Delta has lost nearly 2,000 square miles of land since the 1930s – which is about the size of Delaware. The Restore the Mississippi Delta Coalition is a group of five non-profit organizations that hope to change this story. Together the groups coordinate efforts to promote science, raise money and take action when it comes to projects to halt wetland loss and help rebuild land in the quickly disappearing Delta. A current promising approach to coastal restoration is one that has been talked about for a long time – building channels that allow the Mississippi to deposit some of its sediments into the silt-starved waters beyond the levees. We met with members of Restore the Mississippi Delta Coalition, where the folks at Southwings graciously agreed to get us airborne for an unparalleled vantage point of the coast to see what’s being lost and, more important, what can still be saved.

From Cargo Barges to Cruise Ships, the Port of New Orleans Anchors U.S. to Global Economy

Since New Orleans was founded in 1718, one of the city’s biggest features was the port that connected the Mississippi River and thousands of miles of inland U.S. waterways to the Gulf of Mexico and other ports across the globe. The port was so important that, in 1803, it was a driving factor in Thomas Jefferson’s decision to green light the Louisiana Purchase. Today, that importance to the U.S. economy still holds true. The Port of New Orleans anchors one of the world’s busiest port systems at the mouth of the Mississippi and provides dockage for everything from deep-draft ocean tankers full of petroleum, to Mississippi-bound barges carrying fertilizer, to gigantic cruise ships stuffed with tourists bound for the crystal waters of the Caribbean. But in a river full of silt, keeping the 45- foot draft required to allow passage of those vessels is a full-time job, making dredging one of the most important undertakings on the Lower Mississippi. We met some folks involved in the Mississippi’s shipping economy and got out on one of the Port’s big fire boats to get a view of operations from sea level.

Day 8: Wetlands Restoration and Urban Resilience

Buras, LA

Sportsmen Struggle to Preserve Their Paradise

“Sportsman’s Paradise” adorns license plates in Louisiana, an homage to the abundance of waterfowl, fish, shellfish and other animals that have lured hunters and anglers to the state for centuries. But those pursuits wouldn’t be possible without the “paradise” part of that equation – the coastal marshes and wetlands that sustain all that life. Over the last several decades, sportsmen (and sportswomen) have watched as the bayous and backwaters they once hunted and fished have become open water. Some, like Ryan Lambert, have done more than watch. Lambert is a fixture in Baton Rouge at the state capitol, where he campaigns to bring awareness to the plight of the Louisiana coast and, above all else, inspire action to combat it. Lambert makes his living off of this land with his hunting and fishing guide service, which itself is part of a multi-billion-dollar tourism and outdoor economy. While he waits for politicians and state and federal agencies to get going on bigger projects, like the diversions to bring sediments back into the coastal marshes, Lambert has taken some matters into his own hands – building structures out in waters he frequently uses that help trap sediment and rebuild land. We spent a morning on the water with Ryan and his guides.

New Orleans, LA

Post Katrina and Rita, the Big Easy’s Big Efforts to Stay Dry

When you’re a city that sits below sea level, engineering is key. In fact, the entire city of New Orleans is surrounded by levees. They’re usually pretty good at keeping the Mississippi River outside of town but it also means that when it rains, every drop that falls on the city needs to be pumped back out. It’s a case of a system that works, until it doesn’t. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were dramatic and tragic reminders of what happens, to borrow an old blues lyric, “When the levee breaks.” In response to those natural disasters, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers invested heavily in New Orleans’ flood control infrastructure. We toured one upgraded piece of this puzzle, the 17th Street Canal pumping station.