Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): Mississippi River

Mississippi River flooding and Hurricane Barry could have inundated New Orleans. Here are four actions we need to take before that happens again.

The Bonnet Carré Spillway will finally close this week after two separate openings totaling an unprecedented 120 days. The spillway was built to protect New Orleans and surrounding parishes from Mississippi River flooding as part of the Mississippi River and Tributaries system designed after the Great Flood of 1927.

This comes on the heels of another first when, earlier this month, Hurricane Barry was the first tropical storm to make landfall while the Mississippi River was at flood stage. This one-two punch — tropical storm combined with high river — was previously only a nightmare scenario with the potential to send storm surge upriver, overtopping levees, inundating the city and surrounding region, and shutting down globally significant commerce.

Mercifully, that scenario did not occur—Barry shifted westward, river levels never reached projected heights and rainfall diminished. However, the river remains dangerously high into the thick of hurricane season. During Hurricane Katrina, storm surge in the river increased the water level by 13 feet, but the river was so low that it wasn’t a threat. The combination hurricane-river flood scenario could play out again – and next time we may not be so lucky.

Louisiana floods in three ways: 1.) From water flowing down the Mississippi and other rivers; 2.) From storm surge and rising seas from the Gulf of Mexico; 3.) From rainfall, now increasing in intensity and overwhelming existing drainage systems. With Barry, for the first time ever, we faced all three threats at once, and climate change will only compound them.

Going forward, we must learn to live with water. On the Mississippi River specifically, the current management system no longer meets the needs of the future. Here are four strategies to help us get there:   Read More »

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Repeat opening of Bonnet Carré Spillway is a sign we need to manage rivers differently

Earlier this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway north of New Orleans for the second time this year to relieve pressure on the Mississippi River levees and protect communities in south Louisiana from catastrophic flooding.

It was the first time in the structure’s nearly century-old existence that it had been opened twice in the same year. When the Corps opened the spillway in February, it was the first opening in back-to-back years.

Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser recognized this unprecedented occurrence in response to the wettest period in 124 years, saying, “This is not business as usual.” What was designed as an emergency flood control system has increasingly become a default safety valve, as climate change and increased precipitation throughout the Mississippi River Valley only further stress the system.

This is a sign that we need to re-think how we manage our rivers and revisit operations of a system designed nearly a century ago. Read More »

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In a race against time, officials collaborate to speed up coastal restoration. Here’s how.

Louisiana is in the midst of a catastrophic land loss crisis. The state has already lost over 2,000 square miles of land, and it could lose as much as 4,000 square miles more if nothing is done to restore the coast.

As these wetlands disappear into the Gulf of Mexico, so do the natural protections that shield New Orleans and other coastal communities from rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms.

It’s a dilemma that’s playing out in coastal communities across the United States and around the world.

So it came as welcome news when state and federal regulators this month agreed to shave nearly two years off the five-year permitting process for a diversion project that will allow the mighty Mississippi River to do its natural business of building much-needed land.

It’s an acknowledgment that we’ve no time to lose in preparing for the unavoidable impacts of climate change. Read More »

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Why Kansas farmer Justin Knopf strives to emulate the native prairie

Farmer in fieldI first met Justin Knopf at a meeting in DC about five years ago. At 6’3”, he definitely stood out, but not just physically. He openly conveyed how important his family and his land are – the reason he cares so much about making sure his Kansas farming operation can live on is for his children. It’s rare to meet someone so articulate, sincere and committed to sustainability.

Over the years, I have become more and more impressed by Justin, who started farming at age 14 when his father gave him the means to rent land and buy seed and fertilizer.

Fast forward to today, and Justin is one of the country’s champions of no-till farming – a practice that has boosted his yields and made his crops more resilient to the effects of extreme weather. His dedication and success caught the attention of Miriam Horn, author of the new book Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland.

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman tells the stories of five individuals in the enormous Mississippi River watershed (Justin included) who are embracing sustainability and defying stereotypes. I asked Justin about the book, his beliefs on sustainability and what’s next for no till. Read More »

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These heartland conservation heroes defy stereotypes

Montana rancher Dusty Crary with his horses.

Montana rancher Dusty Crary with his horses.

Western ranchers, Midwestern commodity crop growers, fishermen who make their livelihoods along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. In some circles, these folks wouldn’t necessarily be considered models of sustainability. And yet, many are leading a quiet revolution in the way our food is raised, harvested and produced.

In her new book Rancher Farmer Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the Heartland, my colleague Miriam Horn journeys down the Mighty Mississippi River System to meet five representatives of this unsung stewardship movement: Read More »

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How coastal restoration in Louisiana is helping rural communities in the Midwest

Hunkering down in a duck blind with my dad on the Cuivre River, which feeds into the Mississippi.

Hunkering down in a duck blind with my dad on the Cuivre River, which feeds into the Mississippi.

Clang. A knot of rusted chains pulls shut the driveway gate, bringing it closed with a final smack against a worn fence post. Just like that, my Sunday afternoon visit to our family farm in Clarksville, Missouri ends. After a quick trip home to Saint Louis, it’s time to catch a flight to Washington, D.C. for my internship.

But not before my dad asks, “Do you want to see downtown?”. I laugh, but agree to check it out. “Downtown” is a relative term in Clarksville – a quiet river community with fewer than 500 residents.

The streets slope down to the shoreline, where historic buildings meet the Mighty Mississippi. A few barges float nearby, unperturbed by the currents that pull toward the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a calm day on the river. I spot a sign emblazoned with a familiar red and white Army Corps castle. Just ahead, a concrete arm extends across the channel. Read More »

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