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.