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Listen to Nature and Accept Her Resolute Plan

by David Brin, Ph.D.

We can no longer keep chaining up an adamant river that pushes harder every year against the artificial bonds that enslave it to our shortsighted will.

Listen to Nature and Accept Her Resolute Plan

Lately — in light of the horrible devastation wrought by hurricanes along the Gulf Coast — there has been a lot of online chatter about how many predictive "hits" were scored in my novel Earth. The score — now at 14 — includes a vivid portrayal of flooding in both New Orleans and Houston. And yet, there is another notion in that book that I really want to talk about. Something that might be viewed as either an opportunity or a much bigger disaster, just waiting to happen.

In Earth I describe how desperately the Mississippi wants to change its course. Every year, it strains harder against the Army Corps of Engineers' magnificent — but someday doomed — Achafalaya Control Dam. This structure is a key element in that battle — going back two hundred years — to keep the Great River constrained to a single, narrow, navigable channel.

Look at a map and ponder. Anyone who lives in that region knows that the river "wants" to change course... as natural rivers always do... heading down a steeper, shorter path to the Gulf of Mexico. A path down the Achafalaya Valley. Every year, strains on the Control Structure increase, as do flood premiums for people living along the Achafalaya. Everyone knows what will happen, sooner or later.

Is it possible that NOW may be the right time to let the river go?

There have always been benefits and drawbacks to this idea, with the political balance invariably choosing to leave things as they were... spending hundreds of millions to keep forcing Ol' Miss down its old channel, which continues silting and rising. Today, the river's bottom now lies above the second floor of some NoLa buildings. Shall we keep fighting nature till a syrup-sluggish flow passes the third floor? Fourth? Any higher and the river will flow backwards!

Obstinacy has had huge, expensive and destructive effects — artificially lengthening the official channel (now an extended "finger" aimed at Cuba), hampering shipping, robbing the barrier islands and swamps of silt, until Louisiana's delta — the old natural hurricane barrier that might have saved New Orleans from Katrina — is almost gone.

benefits of opening the gates

Benefits include a new, straight and fast channel to the Gulf — especially if it were prepared and then water-scoured — would require little in the way of ongoing dredging or levees. Carried swiftly to the Gulf, silt would spread wide, rebuilding wetlands and islands, recreating the natural storm barriers.

After an adjustment period, river commerce should be more efficient. And the endeavor may partly be paid off by nongovernmental money, attracted to an entirely new rivermouth economic zone. (Providing jobs preferentially for the displaced?)

An added bonus. This is one proposed mega-engineering project that environmentalists may not block. While some might resist out of a reflex to oppose any ambitious alteration of nature, others will see it as restoring a long-lost balance and offer enthusiastic backing. Might this even set a new tone for the years that follow? One of cooperation between those with a keen eye for spotting problems... and those with bold proposals to solve them?

drawbacks of opening the gates

This plan would require finally buying out a chain of Achafalaya farms — and some villages — that have long known the river would someday come a-calling. Some will kick and scream while others welcome getting the waiting over with, calmly, deliberately. Some may even relish new riverfront views.

But let's face it, the real opposition to releasing the Imprisoned Mississippi always came from New Orleans itself, which took pride and identity from being America's greatest River City. Only now the Big Easy may be ready, at last, to accept a different role.

Please, I am not offering this suggestion in order to kick New Orleans while it's down. Indeed, this may be the best and only way to rebuild all of this great town... and more. For example, if the Mississippi moves away, NoLa will remain a GULF city. With Pontchartrain right next door, its port could stay valuable, though much traffic would be diverted to trans-shipment facilities at the new Achafalaya outlet. In any event, this would cut in half the number of dikes that New New Orleans has to maintain. That savings, alone, might pay for the diversion.

(Actually, it may cut the number by more than 2/3.)

And picture this: Today's riverbed would then become an amazing raised plateau winding through town. Envision it supporting a rail corridor, to replace some essential portion of traffic from the transplaced river. Or, better yet, imagine a sinuous path of view-rich housing for many of the displaced, so high that even a future break in the Ponchartrain dikes would never touch them. And the sogginess that rots every beam and timber of New Orleans today? Presumably that would decline, as well.

Certainly on the west and south sides of the old riverbed, this solution would be permanent. A drier life, free of mildew. Only then the suburbs will be physically linked to Old NoLa... perhaps something they won't like, given the unneighborly behavior that some displayed during the Katrina crisis.

Indeed, this may be the one way to ensure that even old neighborhoods can be rebuilt, without the nation worrying that it's all for nothing.

With a year's warning, a new Achafalaya path for the Mississippi could be prepared — the one it wants to take and will take, sooner or later. If done carefully, the new river will be healthier, better for commerce, and the whole region ecologically improved. What's more, it's probably much cheaper than any other plan, as well. Heck, the river itself should do most of the work.

The alternative? Spend billions restoring and then maintaining an impossible situation... keep chaining up an adamant river that pushes harder every year against the artificial bonds that enslave it to our shortsighted will... until the Dam eventually gives way anyway, releasing the Father of Waters to come sweeping down upon unprepared farms and villages... leaving New Orleans just as high and dry.


Listen to Nature and Accept Her Resolute Plan

about this article

In Earth Brin describes how desperately the Mississippi wants to change its course. Every year, it strains harder against the Army Corps of Engineers' magnificent — but someday doomed — Achafalaya Control Dam. Everyone knows what will happen, sooner or later.

"Listen to Nature and Accept Her Resolute Plan" (published in full here) is cribbed from the novel Earth, about how it might be time to let the Mississippi River take its natural path to the sea. It was one of a series posted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Another essay discusses Proxy Activism, a convenient way modern folks can hire others to save the world for them. Finally, an essay talks about how disasters are worsened when professionals and citizens interfere with each other.

Copyright © 2005 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

join David Brin's discussions

David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and posts social media comments on Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and MeWe specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come and argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.

cited in this article

David Brin, Earth

David Brin, "The Other Culture War"

David Brin, "The Power of Proxy Activism"

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James Canton, The Extreme Future

Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest

David R. Montgomery, Growing a Revolution

Extinction Rebellion, This Is Not a Drill

Laurence C. Smith, The World in 2050

Naomi Klein, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal


a brief intro to author David Brin

DAVID BRIN scientist


David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
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Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
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David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
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Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
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Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was appraised as "#1 influencer" in Onalytica's Top 100 report of Artificial Intelligence influencers, brands & publications. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
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