Monday, May 16, 2011


The severely flooded Mississippi has focused some news coverage on the Old River Control Structure, the 50-year-old Army Corps of Engineers project in Louisiana that prevents the river from changing its course and draining into the Gulf of Mexico through a steeper channel, the Atchafalaya River. You can read Jeff Masters on the subject here. (Take note of the sweet, 1958-vintage USACE Sankey Diagram of a 500-year-flood flow that he posts!) The structure doesn't seem to be facing imminent failure, but the 2011 flood is a severe test of an extraordinary, inherently vulnerable engineering system. When the structure does fail, and it certainly will someday, then Baton Rouge and New Orleans will be left by the wayside.

Masters, of course, points to John McPhee's classic essay from 1987, compiled in his eminently worthwhile trilogy The Control of Nature. Basically, you should find this and read it, or if you're appallingly immune to the sensory pleasures of a physical book you can catch the Atchafalaya portion of it by scrolling through twenty-seven web pages on the New Yorker site. It's a fairly amazing projection of modern power that we've been imposing our will on the lower Mississippi for this long, contra natural preferences.


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