Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast

As I wandered past empty homes plastered with “No Trespassing” signs, I could see the economic logic of the island’s “planned deconstruction.” At the same time, the injustice was pretty glaring. The Biloxi and the Choctaw had come to Louisiana after they’d been dispossessed of ancestral lands farther east. The Isle de Jean Charles band had been able to live peacefully on the island only because it was too isolated and commercially irrelevant for anyone else to take an interest in. The band had had no say in the dredging of the oil channels or in the layout of the Morganza to the Gulf project. They’d been excluded from the efforts to control the Mississippi, and, now that new forms of control were being imposed to counter the effects of the old, they were being excluded from those, too.

“It’s kind of hard to imagine that no one’s going to be living here,” Billiot told me. “But I’ve watched it erode away.”

From a distance, the Old River Control Auxiliary Structure looks like a row of sphinxes attached at the ears. The structure is four hundred and forty feet long and a hundred feet high. When you get close enough, you can see that the heads of the sphinxes are really cranes and the haunches steel gates. If there is a single feat of engineering that can stand for the centuries-long effort to dominate the Mississippi—to make it “go where it listeth not”—the Auxiliary Structure might be it. Unlike a levee or a spillway, built to stop the river from flooding, it was put up to stop time.

The Auxiliary Structure sits on a broad plain about eighty miles upriver from Baton Rouge. Near this spot, some five hundred years ago, the Mississippi went on a bender, creating a kind of hydrological as well as nomenclatural hair ball. The meander took the Mississippi so far west that it ran into the Atchafalaya, at that time a distributary of a different river, the Red, which itself was a Mississippi tributary. The Atchafalaya is a good deal shorter and steeper than the last few hundred miles of the Mississippi, and the tangle presented the water in the larger river with a choice. It could follow its old path to the Gulf, via the Bird’s Foot, or it could switch routes and take the faster path offered by the Atchafalaya. Until the mid-eighteen-hundreds, an enormous logjam on the Atchafalaya, which was dense enough to walk across, complicated this choice. But once the jam was removed—by, among other means, nitroglycerin—more and more water began flowing out of the main stem of the Mississippi. As the flow on the Atchafalaya increased, it widened and deepened.

In the ordinary course of events, the Atchafalaya would have kept widening and deepening until, eventually, it captured the lower Mississippi entirely. This would have left New Orleans low and dry and rendered the industries that had grown up along the river—the refineries, the grain elevators, the container ports, and the petrochemical plants—essentially worthless. Such an eventuality was thought to be unthinkable, and so, in the nineteen-fifties, the Corps stepped in. It dammed the former meander, known as Old River, and dug two huge, gated channels. The river’s choice would now be dictated for it, its flow maintained as if it were forever the Eisenhower era.

Long before I caught sight of the Auxiliary Structure, I’d read about it in John McPhee’s classic piece “Atchafalaya,” a morality tale of a darkly comic cast that appeared in this magazine, in 1987. In McPhee’s telling, the Corps throws its heart—and millions of tons of concrete—into forestalling the Mississippi’s avulsion, and believes that it has succeeded. “The Corps of Engineers can make the Mississippi River go anywhere the Corps directs it to go,” one general avers, after a narrow brush with disaster, in 1973, when control of Old River Control was nearly lost. McPhee writes admiringly of the Corps’ grit, determination, even genius, but running through the essay is a strong countercurrent. Is the Corps just kidding itself? Are we all?

“Atchafalaya,” McPhee writes. “The word will now come to mind more or less in echo of any struggle against natural forces—heroic or venal, rash or well advised—when human beings conscript themselves to fight against the Earth, to take what is not given, to rout the destroying enemy, to surround the base of Mt. Olympus demanding and expecting the surrender of the gods.”

I showed up at Old River Control on a lovely Sunday afternoon in late winter. The Corps’ office, tucked behind a formidable iron fence, looked empty. But, when I pressed on a buzzer by the driveway, the intercom crackled to life and a natural-resource specialist named Joe Harvey came out to meet me. He was dressed as if he were about to go fishing, with his pants tucked into big rubber boots. He led me out to a gazebo overlooking the Auxiliary Structure and its outflow channel.

As the water in the channel swirled by, we chatted about fluvial history. “In 1900, about ten per cent of the Red River and the Mississippi put together was going down the Atchafalaya,” Harvey explained. “In 1930, you had about twenty per cent. By 1950, you had thirty per cent.” This was the trend line that prompted the Corps to step in.

“We still do the seventy-thirty division,” Harvey said. Every day, engineers measure the flow on the Red and the Mississippi and adjust the gates accordingly. On this particular Sunday, they were allowing through some forty thousand cubic feet per second.

“From here down to the mouth of the Mississippi is about three hundred and fifteen miles,” Harvey said. “And from here to the mouth of Atchafalaya is about a hundred and forty miles. So it’s about half the distance. So the river wants to go this way. But if that happens . . .” His voice trailed off.

Two people were fishing on the outflow channel, from a little motorboat, and I asked Harvey what they might catch. “Oh, we have everything that’s in the Mississippi,” he said. “Of course, now there’s a whole lot of carp, and that’s not so good.” He was referring to Asian carp, which were brought over from China in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. The fish, which had been imported to provide algae control, escaped from hatcheries during flood season and found their way into the Mississippi, and from there into virtually all of the river’s major tributaries. In some stretches of the Illinois River, Asian carp now make up ninety per cent of the fish stock by weight. Like the dissolution of the Louisiana coast, the carpification of the Mississippi basin is a man-made natural disaster. And here, as well, the Corps has been called in. In an effort to keep the fish from swimming into Lake Michigan, it has spent tens of millions of dollars installing electric carp barriers.

“They’re still trying to keep them out of the Great Lakes,” Harvey said. “Here, they’re just everywhere.”

McPhee included “Atchafalaya” in his book “The Control of Nature,” published in 1989. Since then, a lot has happened to complicate the meaning of “control,” not to mention “nature.” Choose just about any metric you want and it tells the same story. Through activities like farming, mining, and clear-cutting, people have directly transformed more than half the ice-free land on Earth—some twenty-seven million square miles—and we’ve indirectly altered half of what remains. As with the Mississippi, we have dammed or leveed most of the world’s major rivers. Our fertilizer plants and legume crops fix more nitrogen than all terrestrial ecosystems combined, and our planes, cars, and power stations emit about a hundred times more carbon dioxide than volcanoes. We now routinely cause earthquakes. (A particularly damaging human-induced quake that shook Pawnee, Oklahoma, on the morning of September 3, 2016, was felt all the way in Des Moines.) In terms of sheer biomass, the numbers are stark-staring: today, people outweigh wild mammals by a ratio of more than eight to one. Add in the weight of our domesticated animals—mostly cows and pigs—and that ratio climbs to twenty-three to one. “In fact,” as a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences observed, “humans and livestock outweigh all vertebrates combined, with the exception of fish.” We have become the major driver of extinction and also, probably, of speciation. In the age of man, there is nowhere to go—and this includes the deepest trenches of the oceans and the middle of the Antarctic ice sheet—that does not already bear our Friday-like footprints.

Atmospheric warming, ocean warming, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, deglaciation, desertification, eutrophication—these are just some of the byproducts of our species’ success. Such is the pace of what is blandly labelled “global change” that there are only a handful of comparable examples in Earth’s history, the most recent being the asteroid impact that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, sixty-six million years ago. Humans are producing no-analogue climates, no-analogue ecosystems, a whole no-analogue future. At this point, it might be prudent to scale back our commitments and reduce our impacts. But there are so many of us—nearly eight billion—and we are stepped in so far, return seems impracticable.

And so we face a no-analogue predicament. If there is to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control. Only now what’s to be managed is not a nature that exists—or is imagined to exist—apart from the human. Instead, the new effort begins with a planet remade, and spirals back on itself—not so much the control of nature as the control of (the control of) nature. A Mississippi that’s been harnessed, straightened, regularized, and shackled can still exert a godlike force; it’s no longer exactly a river, though. It’s hard to say who, these days, occupies Mt. Olympus, if anyone. ♦

An earlier version of this article misstated the relative positions of Isle de Jean Charles and Buras.

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