X-Tra Rant Taking Myself Way Too Seriously Since 1999

16May/110

[Politics, Weather] The Rise & (Potential) Fall of the Old River Control Structure

I'm going to attempt, at least every other day, to pick an item I've shared via my Google Reader account and post about it here. Get me back in the habit and maybe not make me solely reliant on annoying baby posts.

Today's link: America's Achilles' heel: the Mississippi River's Old River Control Structure by Dr. Jeff Masters at WeatherUnderground.

America has an Achilles' heel. It lies on a quiet, unpopulated stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, a few miles east of the tiny town of Simmesport. Rising up from the flat, wooded west flood plain of the Mississippi River tower four massive concrete and steel structures that would make a Pharaoh envious--the Army Corps' of Engineers greatest work, the billion-dollar Old River Control Structure. This marvel of modern civil engineering has, for fifty years, done what many thought impossible--impose man's will on the Mississippi River

It's an absolutely fascinating read about one of the greatest civil engineering feats in the modern world. Over thousands of years, the Mississippi River has changed it's final course to the Gulf of Mexico multiple times. To the native peoples of North America, this wasn't an issue - but once the Europeans arrived and started setting up ports and cities and businesses where Big Muddy meets the Gulf, the location of the end of the largest river system in North America became very, very important.

From an essay by John McPhee, The Control Of Nature, excerpted by Dr. Masters

The Mississippi's main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier--arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river's present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it.

In the late 1950's the Army Corps of Engineers stepped in and built what was to become the Old River Control Structure. This series of dams and levees and control gates was to ensure that the Mississippi River would go where WE want it to go - right through New Orleans and the ports that are so valuable to our economy. South Louisiana is the busiest port in the United States, and currently sits 12th busiest in the world. Now... move the Mississippi away from the ports... How do we get all those goods coming in and out of the United States through that port to where they need to be?

Dr. Masters' post has fascinating information about how this structure came to be, the great threat it faced from a flood in 1973 and the possibly greater threat it faces today with the record flooding along the Mississippi Basin.  It's definitely worth a read.

In my mind, where this intersects with politics is the greater problem we have as a country with our infrastructure. Our country is built on grand projects - grand OLD projects. Our power system, our highway and interstate system, our flood prevention system and the control if the Mississippi River and continued existence of its ports. All projects that are decades old. With a culture in this country that the government spending money at all (except on the military) is 'wasteful' at best or 'socialism' at worst nothing has been done to keep our infrastructure sound, let alone replace and modernize it with new technologies.

The Great Recession of 2007 -2009 was a prime opportunity to not only put much needed work and money into our infrastructure but to boost our economy at the same time. We had a chance to do a major stimulus package not built around even more tax cuts and a few projects here and there, but a package built around rebuilding the bones of the nation. A stimulus that would have been fully directed towards fixing roads, bridges, dams, power transmission systems, power generation plants and the like would have put tens or hundreds of thousands of Americans to work, and that work would have had a long lived impact on our nation's economy. In addition to rebuilding was is old or out of date, we also could have focused on building a new infrastructure for the 21st century - a national broadband backbone to not only get internet quality and speeds higher where it already exists, but to get broadband internet into communities ignored by the likes of AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and the like.

Instead we get whines about socialism, Randian utopia fantasies and a lukewarm response that only softened the landing of a recession without giving us a long term boost from the money spent.

Next time a bridge collapses, a levee breaks or  some other infrastructure disaster strikes... think about the opportunity we had and wasted because some people are so afraid of taxes that they will mortgage their future so as not to pay them.

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