Posted on August 13, 2023
The Mississippi River is vital to Louisiana and the nation. Throughout America’s history, it has been a source of food and agriculture for millions of people.
Mark Twain once wrote of its power, “The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.”
Over the last hundred years, people have tried to engineer the river to control flooding and improve shipping. Over time, the river has taught us once again that it must have its way. When humans try to alter or push against the power of nature, it invariably has unwanted consequences.
Human activity has slowly but surely altered the natural state of the river. Through levees and dams, we have changed the river’s flow and redirected its resources. And over time, human intervention has isolated Louisiana’s wetlands. They have been cut off not only from the flow of water but from the soil and sediment that sustain them.
Here’s the good news: After years and decades of work, we are doing something about it.
This week, the state breaks ground on the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion. The project is designed to replenish Louisiana’s wetlands by reconnecting them to the Mississippi River.
If we do this now, scientists believe we can rebuild the wetlands at a pace that will keep up with rising sea levels. By working with nature — instead of against it — coastal communities will once again be protected for generations to come.
Wetlands function like natural speed bumps. They help to slow big storms and blunt extreme weather impacts. As long as freshwater and sediment continued flowing from the river, the wetlands kept up their protective work. But, as people constrained the river’s flow, those wetlands began to shrink.
Today, Louisiana is losing a football field of land every 90 minutes. This has been a catastrophe not only for the wetlands’ fragile ecosystems but for the people who rely on them.
The people of southern Louisiana are feeling the squeeze. Without robust wetlands to protect them, Louisiana’s towns and cities are hit routinely by floods and storms.
An aerial view of coastal Louisiana.
Communities that have made coastal Louisiana home for generations are finding it difficult to stay on their land and earn a living. Residents are increasingly facing storms and hurricanes that damage property and threaten lives.
This is a great example of natural infrastructure — harnessing the power of nature to solve problems. Natural infrastructure solutions let people and nature thrive together, which is the way of the future.
At the Walton Family Foundation, we’ve been supporting these efforts for nearly two decades because of their incredible potential and importance. This is what it looks like when philanthropy, community leaders, advocates and government all work together.
We’re excited about what it means for the future of our communities — in Louisiana, up and down the Mississippi, and across the country.
It can be hard to find agreement on big projects in America right now. Too often, we view collaboration and change of any kind with suspicion. But, this work has brought together an incredible community of people committed to action — from scientists and advocates who worry about climate change’s impact on our ecosystems, to communities who rely on the river and the land for their livelihoods.
The result — in spite of obstacles and obstructions that required resolve and dedication to overcome — is one of the largest resilience projects in the world and offers a model that others can look to for generations to come.
As the state breaks ground on this project, it will show Louisiana at the leading edge of climate resilience work. But it will also show how we can work together again. It will show how we can use the power of nature to deal with big storms by adapting to climate change in a smart and cost-effective way.
And it will point the way forward — not just to new projects, but to a new way of connecting with one another. In Louisiana, we see that we can build a smarter, more productive and more prosperous future together.