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A miniature model of the Mississippi River and the fight to save coastal Louisiana

Mississippi River model
Posted at 12:34 PM, Aug 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-05 12:34:30-04

Beneath the surface of the water, the earth is constantly churning. Nothing can slow the speed or power of the Mississippi River as it flows across the United States and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Between the banks, this river is pulling nearly 500 million tons of mud from 30 states some 2,300 miles south. Each year that sediment is deposited into the Gulf, but for all her power, the Mississippi River is not protecting coastal Louisiana the way she once did.

"You are literally surrounded by water here," explains Brian Lezina, chief of planning for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Lezina and his team at the Coastal Protection Restoration Agency are trying to save the coast. It turns out, though, you don't actually have to be on the Mississippi River to study it.

"It’s all about keeping a map looking like South Louisiana in some form or fashion," Lezina explained.

Some 1,200 miles to the north, tucked inside a warehouse in Holden, Massachusetts, Andy Johansson and his team have managed to fit North America's second-longest river, into a warehouse the size of a football field.

Over the last few years, Andy Johansson and his team at Alden Labs have been using this lab to study a sediment diversion channel. With the help of a dye bottle and food coloring, the team can control the velocity of the water and see how much sediment is naturally carried into the channel.

Think of it as a dam; only instead of diverting water, the diversion channel is diverting sediment or small grains of sand and earth.

The idea is to move that sediment through a channel some seven miles south into the Mid-Barataria Bay. A section of the Mississippi Delta that was once all wetlands is now just water because of rising sea levels, putting New Orleans and the entire state of Louisiana at risk.

"Sea level rise and land loss is a big issue, particularly for the people who live in this area,” said Johansson. “If we can do something and make a difference, that’s great.”

The model costs about $1.4 million to build, which is a fraction of the $4 billion it will cost to construct the project here on the Mississippi. All of the money is coming from a settlement related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

"You can look at designs in 2-D. You can look at designs on paper, but when you see the model firsthand and see how the water is interacting with a structure," Johansson explained.

In the first 50 years after it's built, the sediment diversion project could create or save as much as 47 square miles of land. While this project will help protect the city of New Orleans, this is not just a coastal Louisiana issue.

As sea levels rise worldwide, sediment diversion is the kind of climate change management project, communities nationwide are having to look at simply to survive.

Brian Lezina with CPRA knows the magnitude of what his agency is trying to accomplish.

"This is not a small project,” he said. “It is intended to change the environment, and we take the responsibility seriously.”

Those who live at the mouth of the Mississippi know nothing can stop this river's furry. So, instead of fighting it, they are harnessing the power of this unforgiving, unrelenting force of nature.