- Mississippi River
a major river of North America that flows from the US state of Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It was called the ‘Father of Waters’ by Native Americans. It is 2 348 miles/3 778 kilometres long and passes the cities of Minneapolis, St Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. The Missouri River is connected to it, and together they form the third largest river system in the world (3 741 miles/6 019 kilometres long). The Mississippi is an important transport route and is known for its 19th-century river boats.See also Ol’ Man River.
* * *River, central U.S. It rises at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and flows south, meeting its major tributaries, the Missouri and the Ohio rivers, about halfway along its journey to the Gulf of Mexico.It enters the Gulf southeast of New Orleans, after a course of 2,350 mi (3,780 km). It is the largest river in North America, and with its tributaries it drains an area of 1.2 million sq mi (3.1 million sq km). Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was the first European to discover the river in 1541. French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette traveled down it in 1673 as far as the Arkansas River. French explorer La Salle reached the delta in 1682 and claimed the entire Mississippi region for France, as Louisiana. France kept control over the upper river, but the lower portion passed to Spain in 1769. It was designated the western boundary of the U.S. in 1783. France sold it to the U.S. in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. During the American Civil War, Union forces captured Vicksburg, Miss., in 1863, breaking the Confederate hold on the river. As the central river artery of the U.S, it is one of the busiest commercial waterways in the world.
* * *Introductionthe largest river of North America, draining with its major tributaries an area of approximately 1.2 million sq mi (3.1 million sq km), or about one-eighth of the entire continent. The Mississippi River lies entirely in the United States. Rising in Lake Itasca in Minnesota, it flows almost due south across the continental interior, collecting the waters of its major tributaries, the Missouri (Missouri River) River (to the west) and the Ohio (Ohio River) River (to the east), approximately halfway along its journey to the Gulf of Mexico through a vast delta southeast of New Orleans, a total distance of 2,350 mi (3,780 km) from its source. With its tributaries, the Mississippi drains all or part of 31 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.As the central river artery of a highly industrialized nation, the Mississippi River has become one of the busiest commercial waterways in the world, and, as the unruly neighbour of some of the continent's richest farmland, it has been subjected to a remarkable degree of human control and modification. Furthermore, the river's unique contribution to the history and literature of the United States has woven it like a bright thread through the folklore and national consciousness of North America, linking the names of two U.S. presidents—Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant—with that of the celebrated author Mark Twain.Although the Mississippi can be ranked as the fourth longest river in the world by adding the length of the Missouri-Jefferson (Red Rock) system to the Mississippi downstream of the Missouri-Mississippi confluence—for a combined length of 3,710 mi—the 2,350-mi length of the Mississippi proper is comfortably exceeded by 19 other rivers. In volume of discharge, however, the Mississippi's rate of roughly 600,000 cu ft (17,000 cu m) per second is the eighth greatest in the world.On the basis of physical characteristics, the Mississippi River can be divided into four distinct reaches, or sections. In its headwaters, from the source to the head of navigation at St. Paul (Saint Paul), Minn., the Mississippi is a clear, fresh stream winding its unassuming way through low countryside dotted with lakes and marshes. The upper Mississippi reach extends from St. Paul to the mouth of the Missouri River near St. Louis, Mo. Flowing past steep limestone bluffs and receiving water from tributaries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa, the river in this segment assumes the character that led Algonquian-speaking Indians to name it the “Father of Waters” (literally misi, “big”; sipi, “water”). Below the Missouri River junction, the middle Mississippi follows a 200-mi course to the mouth of the Ohio River. The turbulent, cloudy-to-muddy, and flotsam-laden Missouri, especially when in flood, adds impetus as well as enormous quantities of silt to the clearer Mississippi. Beyond the confluence with the Ohio at Cairo, Ill., the lower Mississippi attains its full grandeur. Where these two mighty rivers meet, the Ohio is actually the larger; thus, below the Ohio confluence the Mississippi swells to more than twice the size it is above. Often a mile and a half from bank to bank, the lower Mississippi becomes a brown, lazy river, descending with deceptive quiet toward the Gulf of Mexico.To geographers, the lower Mississippi has long been a classic example of a meandering (meander) alluvial river; that is, the channel loops and curls extravagantly along its floodplain, leaving behind meander scars, cutoffs, oxbow lakes, and swampy backwaters. More poetically, Mark Twain compared its shape to “a long, pliant apple-paring.” Today the sunlight glittering on the twisted ribbon of water remains one of the most distinctive landmarks of a transcontinental flight. Now curbed largely by an elaborate system of embankments (levees), dams, and spillways, this lower section of the Mississippi was the golden, sometimes treacherous, highway for the renowned Mississippi steamboats, those “palaces on paddle wheels” that so fired the public imagination. From the explosive master pilot Horace Bixby, portrayed by Mark Twain, to the nostalgic lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein's song “Ol' Man River,” the creations of that era on the Mississippi have added colour to America's heritage.Physical featuresPhysiographyThe geology and physical geography of the Mississippi drainage area are essentially those of the Interior Lowlands and Great Plains of North America. Fringes also touch upon the Rocky and Appalachian mountains and upon the rim of the Canadian (Laurentian) Shield to the north. The focus of the system, the floodplain of the lower Mississippi, is of particular interest in that the geology and physical geography of the region are of the river's own making. Like a huge funnel, the river has taken sediment and debris from contributory areas near the lip of the funnel and deposited much of the product in the alluvial plain of the funnel's spout, illustrating the interdependence of the entire Mississippi system.The most significant contributory area in recent times has been to the west of the river. Rising in western uplands, notably in the foothills of the Rockies, rivers such as the Red, Arkansas, Kansas, Platte, and Missouri remove considerable silt loads from the rolling expanses of the Great Plains. These tributaries meander and braid across a wide, gently sloping mantle of unconsolidated materials, laid down over rock beds of the Cretaceous Period (i.e., about 100 million years old), toward the “Father of Waters.” Precipitation in these western areas is light to moderate, usually less than 25 in (635 mm) per year, but, because at least 70 percent of this precipitation falls as rain between April and September, the erosive capability of the rivers is enhanced (runoff from winter snowmelt is more gradual than from rainstorms). The sandy sediments, moreover, offer little resistance to erosion, so that many of these rivers are only braided in their courses.The Mississippi's eastern contributory rivers drain the well-watered Appalachian Mountain system. Most of this group, including the Kentucky, Green, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers, flows via well-defined valleys into the Ohio and thence into the Mississippi. The erosive capacity of these rivers varies in relation to the geologic structure of their basins. These consist of harder rocks in the higher elevations and a softer sill of limestone of the Late Carboniferous Period (i.e., about 300 million years of age), lying below the 1,000-foot elevation line between the Ohio and Tennessee rivers and in the glaciated area of the Ohio's right-bank tributaries.The third contributory area of the Mississippi also differs from the other two. The upper Mississippi gathers its strength in a region marked by glacial action. After the great ice sheets of the Wisconsin (Wisconsin Glacial Stage) Glaciation had put down layers of debris across much of Minnesota, Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and northern Iowa, huge quantities of meltwater flowed south, washing channels through this debris. Today the upper Mississippi and its tributaries, the Wisconsin, St. Croix, Rock, and Illinois rivers, all trace the lines of these former sluiceways.Pouring southward, the glacial meltwaters were joined by the proto-Missouri and Ohio rivers. The combined waters then enlarged the great north-south trough along which the lower Mississippi now flows. A thousand miles long, this trough is 25 to 200 mi wide and bounded by escarpments rising up to 200 ft above the valley floor. Geologic studies have revealed that the floor of the glacial trough was later buried by a deep layer of material washed out from an ice sheet and dumped to a thickness of 100 to 300 ft in the central section.The Mississippi's delta is an even more striking monument to the river's constructive work. There, at the tip of the drainage funnel, millions of years of sedimentation have spilled out across the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, forming cones of sediment that total 300 mi in radius and 30,000 sq mi in area. The surface expression of the many sub-deltas is the Mississippi delta, with an area exceeding 11,000 sq mi. Stretching its distributaries into the gulf, the Mississippi once delivered some 220 million tons of sediment there each year, most of it as silt. Today, however, much of this silt is captured behind upstream dams, causing the delta to erode and shrink in area. Compounding this problem are the many hundreds of miles of levees (walls that limit flooding) along the river's banks, which trap silt in the channel proper. This is especially damaging in the delta, where annual silt additions from flooding help to keep it from being eroded by waves.ClimateDuring winter, mean monthly temperatures in the Mississippi basin range from 55 °F (13 °C) in subtropical southern Louisiana to 10 °F (−12 °C) in subarctic northern Minnesota. Mean monthly temperatures in summer range from 82 °F (28 °C) in Louisiana to 70 °F (21 °C) in Minnesota.Precipitation sources are low-level moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and some low-level and high-level moisture from the Pacific Ocean. Winter and spring precipitation occurs in the vicinity of easterly and southerly fronts and storms. Average monthly precipitation in winter ranges from five inches or more in the south to more than three inches over much of the Ohio River basin to less than one inch over the western and northern Great Plains. Summer and early autumn rainfall occurs mostly as showers and isolated thunderstorms and weaker frontal storms. Average monthly rainfall ranges from six inches in southern Louisiana and over the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina to only two or three inches over the Great Plains.The climate is humid over the eastern half of the basin, with large quantities of winter and spring runoff generated over the Tennessee, Ohio, and southern Mississippi river basins. A north-south band of subhumid climates, neither fully humid nor semiarid, extends from central Texas northward to eastern North Dakota. To the west are the semiarid climates of the Great Plains, and along the Rocky Mountain crests an alpine climate prevails, in which winter snowfalls are released as spring and early summer meltwater runoff.HydrologyIt is not surprising that the hydrology of so powerful a river as the Mississippi has been the subject of intense study. In the 19th century Mark Twain (Twain, Mark) described with considerable wit how the pilots of the Mississippi paddle wheelers banded together to run a common information service about changing conditions along the channel. Today the Mississippi River Commission is responsible for river work and considers it worthwhile to maintain a working scale model of the river so that its engineers can test new plans in miniature before embarking on expensive, full-scale projects. Indeed, by the 1920s it was generally believed that enough was known about the river's hydrology and enough control structures had been built to have tamed the river. Then in 1927 came the most disastrous flood in the recorded history of the lower Mississippi valley. More than 23,000 sq mi of land flooded. Communications, including roads and rail and telephone services, were cut in many places. Farms, factories, and whole towns went temporarily underwater. An immense amount of property was damaged, and at least 250 people lost their lives. The river engineers took another look at the hydrology of the Mississippi.Since the freak conditions of 1927, the mean discharge of water into the lower Mississippi by its major tributaries has been carefully monitored. The mean discharge of the main river at Vicksburg, Miss., is calculated at 570,000 cu ft per second. About 135 mi downriver from Vicksburg, approximately 25 percent of the sediment and water discharge of the river is diverted into the Atchafalaya River through the Old River Complex (Old River Control Structures). These statistics, however, conceal all-important variations in river flow linked with the fluctuating state of the Mississippi's larger tributaries.Broadly speaking, the western tributaries have the most-irregular flow regimes. They reach a spring or early summer peak that is up to three or four times as great as their winter contribution. The upper Mississippi and its tributaries reach their maximum flow about the same time (March–June), when melting snows are followed by early summer rains. The winter runoff from this area, however, is also substantial. The crest of the Ohio (Ohio River)'s flow occurs slightly earlier. At Metropolis, Ill., just above the confluence with the Mississippi, the greatest monthly discharge is usually recorded in March, at which time the Ohio may be providing more than three-fifths of the water being monitored past Vicksburg in the lower river.Thus, the Ohio is chiefly responsible for the lower Mississippi flood situations, which may be aggravated by such factors as early rains in the Great Plains, a sudden hot spell in early spring that melts the northern snows, and heavy downpours throughout the lower valley. Under such conditions the lower river will rise over its banks and put pressure against its man-made levees. Tributaries will back up and form lakes on the far side of these same levees. The current, which normally runs no more than 2 to 3.5 knots (2.5 to 4 mi per hour), may then double at constricted points along the main channel. Thus, for example, the monitoring station at Vicksburg, which at low water in 1936 recorded as little as 93,800 cu ft per second, measured 2,060,000 cu ft per second at high-water stage the following year.In late spring and early summer of 1993 another inevitable yet inconceivably large flood occurred on the Mississippi, this time confined to the parts of the river above its confluence with the Ohio (which was not in flood). Among the worst-hit rivers were the lower reaches of the Missouri, the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers in Iowa, and the Mississippi between the Wisconsin-Illinois border and Cape Girardeau, Mo. The floods were set off by persistent rains in this region. For the first time in recorded history the Mississippi and the Missouri flooded at the same time—despite the 29 dams on the Mississippi and the 36 giant reservoirs on their tributaries. The Raccoon River in Des Moines crested at seven feet above the previous high, which constituted a 500-year flood event (a flood so large that it occurs, statistically, only about once every 500 years; or that it has a one in five hundred chance of happening in any year). In many parts of Iowa crops never got planted. In all, some 15 million acres flooded, and 40 federal levees and 1,043 nonfederal levees broke. This disastrous flood taught many that flood-control structures such as levees, floodwalls, and dams work for some events but fail to provide enough protection from the 100-year (or larger) floods. The floods of 1993 taught many that tight and total control of rivers as large as the Mississippi is neither possible nor economically feasible. Since then, it has become clear that "living with the river" means moving homes, farmhouses, and even entire towns off the floodplains and allowing these lowland areas to flood naturally.A variety of pollutants, derived from municipal, industrial, and agricultural sources, have been identified in the waters and sediments of the Mississippi River. Organic compounds and trace metals occur in relatively low concentrations; in addition to those naturally present in the water, they derive from industrial and municipal wastes and runoff from agricultural and urban areas. High concentrations of bacteria associated with human waste, however, have been found downstream from some cities and have been attributed to inadequately treated sewage flowing into the river; concentrations downstream from New Orleans, for example, have been found to be many times greater than concentrations above the city. Pollutants have had little widespread effect on the composition of benthic invertebrate populations, which are indicative of changes in water quality. Water samples taken at New Orleans have shown a relatively high dissolved-oxygen content and low biochemical oxygen demand. Thus, by this index, river pollution may be said to be low.Plant and animal lifeAlthough the natural vegetation of the Mississippi's immediate valley is the product of climate and soil rather than of the river, the Mississippi's swamps and backwaters are ecologically noteworthy. Threaded along the river, from the wild-rice marshes of Minnesota to the coastal wetlands of the delta, are pockets of thriving plant-animal associations. There the abundance of natural cover, the comparative isolation, and the food provided by such plants as sedges, pondweeds, and millets encourage regular colonization by waterfowl. The path of these birds, as they move up and down the river with the seasons, has been called the Mississippi Flyway, an appropriate name for the vast aerial highway that reaches from the delta to the distant summer nesting grounds in northern Canada. An estimated eight million ducks, geese, and swans winter in the lower part of the flyway, and many more birds use it en route to Latin America. Typical flyway migrants are Canada geese and lesser snow geese, large numbers of mallard and teal, black ducks, widgeon, pintail and ring-necked ducks, and coots.The most important varieties of fish found in the river include several types of catfish (some of which grow to considerable size and are fished commercially by local concerns along the middle and lower river); walleyes and suckers, which thrive in the upper river and provide the basis for a sport-fishing industry in Minnesota and Wisconsin; carp; and garfish. Alligators are now rare, found only in the most isolated backwaters, and the shrimp and crab fisheries of the brackish waters are in decline.History and economyEarly settlement and explorationAs its respectful Indian name indicates, the Mississippi played an important role in the lives of the aboriginal peoples settled on its banks. To the Indians (Native American) of the river, the Mississippi was both highway and larder. On it they paddled their cottonwood dugouts and their bark canoes, and from it they took the fish that was a mainstay of their diet. Constant shifts of migration, local or large-scale, interwove tribal languages and cultures. By the time Europeans (European exploration) arrived, the Sioux, who originally had lived on the upper river, had withdrawn westward to give place to Ojibwa, Winnebago, Fox, and Sauk. Downriver the Illinois tribe had established prosperous agricultural communities. And in the lower valley itself lived clans of Choctaw, Koroa, Taensa, Chickasaw, Tunica, Yazoo, Pascagoula, Natchez, Biloxi, and Alibamu.The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto (Soto, Hernando de), commander of the first European expedition to penetrate to the river, had high hopes of plundering the southern tribes. In May 1541 his raiding force reached the river at a point south of what is now Memphis, Tenn. But the “Rio Grande,” as the Spaniards called it, provided the newcomers with small profit and much grief. The river Indians launched repeated attacks; the Mississippi floods caught the Spanish unawares; and, ironically, de Soto, the European discoverer of the river, was buried in its waters, after which the rest of his disappointed expedition retreated to the sea, their homemade boats under fire from the Indians.The next European explorers of the river appeared in 1673 out of French Canada—two canoe loads of voyageurs commanded by Louis Jolliet (Jolliet, Louis), a French government agent, and Jacques Marquette (Marquette, Jacques), a Jesuit priest. Portaging from the Fox River to the Wisconsin, they paddled down the Mississippi as far as the mouth of the Arkansas River. Nine years later the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, sieur (lord) de La Salle (La Salle, René-Robert Cavelier, sieur (lord) de), reached the delta itself, having opened the even-easier portage from the Great Lakes via the Illinois River. He grasped at once the strategic significance of the huge drainage system and promptly claimed the entire Mississippi basin for France. Within a generation the Mississippi became a vital link between France's Gulf of Mexico settlements and Canada, and La Salle's claim was vaguely designated as “Louisiana.”But France's grasp on the Mississippi was never firm. French traders settled the upper river, establishing towns like St. Louis and Prairie du Chien (now in Wisconsin), whose names survive to this day. But the lower river passed into Spanish hands in 1769, the Treaty of Paris (Paris, Peace of) (1783) optimistically declared the river as the western boundary of the United States, and republican France reacquired the much-bartered stream only long enough to sell it to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase (1803). This last move recognized what had been obvious for a quarter of a century—the growing domination of the river by the Americans. They came by raft, flatboat, and ark (a “raft with a rim”), built and loaded on the left-bank tributaries that were in the forefront of the westward expansion of the United States. Unwieldy and expendable, these craft floated downstream to leave their cargoes and occupants as advance guards of American political and economic expansion. Only the long, slim keelboats made the return trip. They were worked upstream under pole, paddle, or sail or by the backbreaking “cordelle,” a system under which the crew went ashore with a long bow hawser and pulled the vessel upstream by brute strength.The torch of exploration also passed to the Americans after the Louisiana Purchase. In 1805–06 the pioneer expedition of U.S. Army officer Zebulon M. Pike (Pike, Zebulon Montgomery) struggled to within 80 mi of the river's source, and in 1832 Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe), an Indian agent for the U.S. government, identified and named Lake Itasca (Itasca, Lake) (from the Latin veritas caput, “true head”) as the Mississippi's starting point.Development of the river's commerceBuilt in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1811, the New Orleans was the first steamboat to appear on the river. Like some fearful omen, its maiden voyage coincided with the series of powerful earth tremors centred in Missouri just south of St. Louis (called the New Madrid earthquake) that caused much flooding and sudden relocation of sections of the main channel. But the New Orleans won through, and within a decade its successors had wrought a revolution on the Mississippi. In 1814 only 21 steamboats called at New Orleans, whereas 191 arrived during 1819, and 14 years later more than 1,200 cargo ships were unloaded during the year. As the freight rates by steamer on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers plummeted, it became cheaper to send freight from Cincinnati, Ohio, to the U.S. east coast via the Mississippi and the long sea passage from New Orleans than to transport it over the Appalachians, a route that was 10 times shorter.With the introduction of larger, high-pressure engines and more streamlined hulls, the steamboats extended their range, and the Mississippi became economic overlord to half the country. In 1820 the Western Engineer probed up the Missouri. In 1823 the Virginia churned its way up to Fort Snelling at the junction of the Mississippi with the Minnesota River. The steamboats brought an era of unprecedented prosperity to the river. Town after town sprang up, dependent on the regular arrival of packet boats bringing mail and passengers or freight boats that took on local produce and left off manufactured goods. Riverbank plantations maintained their own landings so they could ship crops directly, and riverside towns vied with each other to provide services such as fueling and warehousing. The waterfront at New Orleans, with its double line of twin-stacked steamers mingled with oceangoing ships, was among the busiest in the country.In 1861, however, came the Civil War; a sharp struggle for control of this vital waterway ensued immediately, which culminated in Ulysses S. Grant's siege of Vicksburg, helped by the fortified gunboats and armoured steamers of the Union. When Vicksburg and the river fell into Union hands, the Confederacy was dealt a heavy commercial and strategic blow. President Abraham Lincoln, who himself had been a Mississippi flatboatman, could report that “the Father of Waters flows unvexed to the sea.”During the years immediately after the Civil War, there was a brief but glorious revival in river traffic. New and faster steamboats were built and operated, often in rivalry to one another, a rivalry made famous by the three-day race, commencing June 30, 1870, between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee (see photograph—>). The latter won by dint of stripping out all unnecessary superstructure and taking on extra fuel supplies from tenders while steaming upriver at full speed. Yet even as the river was at its most flamboyant, the same westward expansion that had brought its development now passed it over. With the construction of east-west railroads and canals, the Mississippi's north-south alignment came to be regarded as a nuisance. Towns that had once sought to become staging posts up and down the river now competed to become crossing points. Commercial traffic dwindled, and the grand luxury paddle wheelers gave way to sombre, more prosaic towboats with blocks of barges.Modern commercial activityWorld War I produced a major resurgence in river trade. As other lines of transport became congested, the river was recognized as an increasingly valuable asset. With federal initiative, new barge lines were organized, and by 1931 the annual barge traffic moving along the river was twice the volume moved in any single year during the previous century. In 1907, for instance, the steamer Sprague established a new world record for size of tow. Its raft of 60 coal barges weighed 67,307 tons and covered an area of 6.5 ac (2.6 ha).Sprague's record is unlikely to be matched by any other paddle wheeler, for the remaining steamboats are mostly showpieces, and the modern Mississippi towboat is of design radically different from its forebears. Screw-driven and diesel-engined, the modern towboat is made fast to the stern of its tow. Ahead stretches a rigid platform of barges as much as 1,500 ft long and with a designed draft of 9 ft. Most barges are built for specific cargoes. For dry cargo they average 1,500 tons capacity and measure 195 ft long by 35 ft wide; for liquid cargo the proportions are about 2,500 tons capacity and 295 ft by 50 ft. To aid navigation, towboat captains have at their disposal electronic depth finders, radar, contraguide rudders, global positioning systems, a sophisticated system of riverbank lights and markers, and a radio telephone to warn other river users of their approach in narrow passages. Among the cargoes to be carried along the river in this fashion since about 1960 are the booster rockets for space research, which are so bulky as to be unsuitable for any other mode of transport.Commercial use of the Mississippi waterway has shown sturdy growth. Leading cargoes, by bulk, are petroleum and derivative products, coal and coke, iron and steel, chemicals, sand and gravel, crushed rock, and sulfur. An increasing emphasis on bulk handling inevitably has meant the rapid growth of a few key port cities at the expense of their rivals.Responsibility for overseeing the maintenance and improvement of the Mississippi as a commercial waterway, as well as the related tasks of flood control and bank protection (see below), falls upon the Mississippi River Commission. Created by act of Congress in 1879, the commission has supervised a massive program of river work that has profoundly reshaped the character of the Mississippi. The main stages of the navigation-improvement program include a channel 9 ft deep and 250 ft wide at low water between Cairo, Ill., and Baton Rouge, La., authorized in 1896; a widening of this channel to 300 ft, approved in 1928; and its deepening to 12 ft, begun in 1944 and still under way. In addition, a ship channel 45 ft deep from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico has been under construction since its authorization by Congress in 1945. Farther upriver, the outstanding achievement has been the construction of 29 locks and dams on the upper river to take the 9-ft channel upstream to Minneapolis–St. Paul. Connecting into the Mississippi is a vast complex of related waterways—from the Intracoastal Waterway in the south, stretching between Florida and the Mexican border, to the channels that lead up the Ohio to its tributaries and through the Illinois waterway to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.Flood controlFlood control along the river dates to the foundation of New Orleans in 1717 by the French, who built a small levee to shelter their infant city. Over the next two centuries a complex array of riverbank structures was erected along the river to contain or divert floods. But it was not until after the catastrophic flood of 1927 that the federal government became committed to a definite program of flood control. The target has become an integrated flood-control system able to master a “project flood,” the largest theoretical flood expected along the river. This program has altered the face of the river even more than the navigation program—with which it is linked—has altered its bed.In principle, the Mississippi's floods are either constricted by levees, hastened out of danger zones by floodways and improved channels, dissipated down spillways and into reservoirs, or starved by the impounding of tributary floods. From Cape Girardeau, Mo., to the Gulf of Mexico, the river is virtually “walled in” by a vast line of main-stem levees. This concrete barrier has, incidentally, isolated the river from much of the surrounding countryside; hence, many former riverbank towns are now severed from their natural setting. In the event that the main levees are threatened, the excess floodwater drains away down spillways (e.g., from north of New Orleans it is diverted past the city by spillways leading through Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico) or bursts “fuse plugs,” the specially weakened sections of levee leading to harmless floodways or reservoirs. A major example of this type of floodway occurs at New Madrid, Mo., just south of the Ohio confluence. At times the system is overwhelmed, such as in 2005 when low-lying New Orleans was flooded after the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River were unable to contain the storm surge waters accompanying Hurricane Katrina.Elsewhere a massive program of bank strengthening undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, using mattresses of concrete slabs, has reduced lateral erosion and increased channel stability. The careful positioning of underwater dikes to deflect the current, the cutting through of oxbow bends at their necks (i.e., straightening the channel), and a continuous dredging schedule have all helped to reduce flood levels and assist navigation. Although the system operated successfully against the high-water levels of 1945 and 1950, it could not contain the flood of 1973 nor the record inundation of 1993 of the upper and middle Mississippi and the lower Missouri. No matter how large, once flood-control reservoirs are full, they serve no additional function, since at that point all the water that enters must be immediately let through.Thus, the Mississippi flood-control program is not without its problems. It has been increasingly necessary, now that the river is caught behind the main-stem levees, to attend to the isolated tributaries. In some cases, costly pumping stations have been installed to lift the impounded water over the levees and into the main river. More dramatic has been the penalty for using the Atchafalaya River as a convenient spillway for floods on the lower river. The Mississippi threatened to divert permanently into this secondary channel, inundating the lower Atchafalaya, bypassing New Orleans, and rendering useless millions of dollars of flood-control works and docks. Only at the cost of a vast and complex system of locks and barrages has the danger been averted. It has become increasingly clear that the river's delicate hydrology has been disturbed and that the program of river work must continue for many years. Perhaps because of the impacts of the 1993 Mississippi floods and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the importance of the long-term health of the riverine environment, flood-control management and prevention strategies continue to be reviewed and evaluated. Presumably, future floodplain management strategies will be designed more to limit land use on flood-prone areas to those kinds of uses that can tolerate flooding rather than to prevent or minimize flood damage in those areas by way of engineered structures.Additional ReadingTwo early reports prepared for the Mississippi River Commission are of interest: Harold N. Fisk, Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River (1945), a classic work, with an accompanying atlas of the geologic history; and D.O. Elliott, The Improvement of the Lower Mississippi River for Flood Control and Navigation, 3 vol. (1932), a detailed survey of history, physical characteristics, flood-control measures, and navigation improvements prior to 1930. Later developments are chronicled in Robert W. Harrison, Alluvial Empire: A Study of State and Local Efforts Toward Land Development in the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, Including Flood Control, Land Drainage, Land Clearing, Land Forming (1961), a nontechnical work; and John McPhee, “Atchafalaya,” in his The Control of Nature (1989), pp. 3–92, a fascinating description of attempts to manage and control the lower Mississippi in Louisiana. Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883, available also in later editions), is a classic humorous account of river conditions and of the life of a river pilot in the mid-19th century; it remains invaluable for background detail on the river's history. Gerald M. Capers, The Mississippi River Before and After Mark Twain (1977), is a popular history.Robert A. Muller Richard H. Kesel
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