The Mississippi River Flood: A Louisiana Scientist’s View

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Published on May 19th, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

Bryan Piazza is the director of freshwater and marine science for The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana.

I’m a Nature Conservancy ecologist, a father and a husband, and a Louisiana resident. So what does the impending Mississippi River flood mean to me?

As a father and husband, I’m thinking: 21 feet, 42 feet, 52 feet.

21 feet: The elevation above sea level of my son’s daycare center on LSU’s campus, which has a great view of the Mississippi River Levee. I know….I checked the FEMA flood maps. Oh, man, I think. That’s not good.

42 feet: That’s the level the river is as I’m checking the flood map. It’s been this high before, but it’s forecast to crest over 5 feet higher and within 2 feet of the top of the levee. We’re going to have to make other plans for my son soon.

52 feet: That’s the elevation of my house in Baton Rouge about three miles from the river where my wife and new son are. It’ll be ok.

As an ecologist, I’m completely fascinated with this flood event and the strain of the river against its containment. In fact, I moved to Louisiana from Wisconsin over 15 years ago to study river flooding and river-floodplain interaction. And I’ve been knee-deep in its muddy water since then, learning everything I can about it and working on its behalf.

Right now, it comes down to containing this flood. As a father and a homeowner, I hope that the river’s containment is strong and sound. So far that containment is sparing my family from flooding, but somewhere, some other father, some other homeowner is not so lucky.

But after the flood is over, we’re going to need to talk as a state and a nation about more than just containment of natural and man-made disasters like those we’ve seen here in south Louisiana over the last five years – hurricanes, the oil spill, and now this river flood.

In a place where we often talk of elevation in inches instead of feet, we see the need to use the power of natural systems to protect people, not just in our state, but throughout the Mississippi River Basin. We’re trying to answer that call in The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana by working on innovative solutions to some of our toughest challenges.

  • Our Mollicy Farms Floodplain Restoration project, where we joined with partners to breach 17 miles of levee and reconnect 90,000 acres of floodplain and adjacent watershed back to the Ouachita River, is the largest river-floodplain reconnection project in the country. That not only means habitat for wildlife, it means floodwater has a place to go before reaching the town of Monroe, Louisiana.
  • We’re also hard at work developing science-based conservation and restoration strategies in the Atchafalaya River Basin. This massive natural area is not only a million-acre American treasure, but it is also major outlet for floodwaters and one of the major relief valves that protect millions of people on the Lower Mississippi River from flooding.
  • And we’re restoring oyster reefs to protect eroding shorelines and restore the suite of services that oysters provide for nature and people.

Our future in south Louisiana and across the Mississippi basin depends on expanding these practical solutions to scale so that we don’t have to rely so heavily on hard containment to protect our families and property. On that point, the ecologist and father in me totally agree.

(Image: Bryan Piazza in action, measuring marsh elevation to determine the accretion rate in response to adding dredge material sediment slurry to the marsh surface, Louisiana. Image courtesy Bryan Piazza/TNC.)

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8 Responses to “The Mississippi River Flood: A Louisiana Scientist’s View”

  1. Leslie says:

    Very interesting to hear your point of view as a father, husband, resident and ecologist. I’m in IL -nowhere near the Mississippi – but have been watching this closely. I definitely hopes this event will help others understand the importance of having habitat restoration, wetlands, etc. Congrats to LA on the big restoration projects!

  2. it is always interesting to see how esrstwhile intelligent people fail to plan ahead when purchasing waterfront and flood prone property. Forethought seems truly rare.

  3. anum khan says:

    a gr8 project

  4. anum khan says:

    good work

  5. Brian Piazza says:

    I am impressed with your personal viewpoint of this situation. Nice job my young friend.

  6. Sun shade says:

    I too have many hats. I’m curious how someone (entity) manages the Mississippi river from beginning to end. Does the federal government manage it or is it done by state and local agencies? Could’t someone had predicted a mega-flood on the ole’ miss was due given how we’ve mismanaged it over the years.

    As a biologist, I know it’s healthy for disasters to take place. Nature has a way of recovery after such disasters. We humans on the otherhand, struggle with that piece. Why do we build so close to where we know bad things might happen?

    Eventually, the commerce driving force must give way to common sense and dare I say a ‘green eco-map’ for civil and business development. We can learn a lot from nature if we’d only follow her clues.

  7. Keith Blomstrom says:

    I will be going to Washinfton D.C. on April 13th to lobbey for the rstoration of The Gulf for The National Wildlife Federation. Thanks for the extra info

  8. Jonny Boy says:

    I am so glad to see this happening and proud of the farmer/s that are working with you all, because they must see the big picture! Agriculture is a very large player in the ever-increasing flooding problems we have faced, are facing, and will face. Agricultural opperations are not held to the environmental checks that developement is. First the levees….the levees keep that flood water from dispersing and slowly soaking into the ground. Instead it channels the water and sends it to its ultimate destination, the Gulf where water hits and starts to back up. That is not to mention the other environmental issues involved. Second the field tiles that are put into the fields to relieve the soil from saturation. Instead the water is drawn to the pipes under the ground and are shot directly to the drainage ditches, streams, and rivers. This creates large fast volumes of water, again not allowing the water to be filtered through the soil naturally and slowly move to the natural drainage. Third is the lack of filter strips/buffers between ag fields and drainages. All of these also create massive ammounts of sedimentation in all of our waterways which creates excess need to dredge our transportation waterways. All of this piled on top of ever-increasing amounts of imperveous surfaces created daily. Thank you to the Nature Conservancy for trying to remedy this for our future generations!

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