- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008



The quotation “Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting over” is famously ascribed to Mark Twain. There’s no proof he actually said this, but if he didn’t, he should have.

The quotation refers, of course, to the frontier West in the 1800s - Twain was a sometime resident of both San Francisco and the silver-mining boom town of Virginia City, Nev. But when most of us think of Twain we think of the Mississippi River, which he navigated as a steamboat pilot.

On the mighty Mississippi no one fights over water. There’s plenty to drink, not that it keeps anyone away from the whisky. But if Twain were alive today, he might update the water quotation, making it more relevant to today’s Mississippi: Whisky is for drinking, dirt is for fighting over. Or more precisely, sediment.

The Mississippi and its tributaries drain an astonishing 41 percent of the continental United States. The resulting flow - during spring floods often exceeding 2 million cubic feet of water per second - reaches the Gulf of Mexico through Louisiana’s Mississippi River Delta. This water carries the eroding land mass of the heartland, hundreds of millions of tons of liquid land a year.

Up and down the river system, from Minneapolis to New Orleans, sediment management has become a nightmare. Far north, in the system of locks and dams built to allow river navigation, sediment settles and must be removed at great expense. At the very end of the river, Head of Passes, the Army Corps of Engineers fought and won its biggest 19th-century battle by opening the river to oceangoing navigation. Today it spends the majority of the national dredging budget, hundreds of millions of dollars per year, defending that victory against shoal-creating sediment.

But this sediment, this dirt, might be a nuisance for the Army Corps, but it’s not waste. It is a critical building material, particularly for the 5,000-square-mile Delta wetlands complex. The Corps’ management system for the river provides navigation access and flood control, but it has starved the magnificent Delta swamps and marsh of the sediment they need to live and grow. After all, a delta is nothing more than a vast pile of sediment built and sustained against the sea, over millennia, by a river.

As a result of the Corps’ management, since 1930 more than 2,000 of the original 7,000 square miles of the Delta have withered, replaced by open water. The rest of the system is in cardiac arrest, dying quickly.

Not only is this unique and magnificent ecosystem in collapse, but as a result New Orleans and Louisiana’s bayou communities have, in effect, been forcibly relocated by the federal government closer to the Gulf and the path of hurricanes. Since 2005, the damage caused in large part by that forced relocation has cost America well in excess of $100 billion.

Even though Congress has directed the Corps to give preserving and restoring river ecosystems the same priority as navigation and flood control, the agency can’t seem to bring itself to do it. Earlier this month, astonished New Orleans residents awoke to Page One news that the Corps demanded closure of the West Bay diversion, an innovative pilot project designed to bring sediment back into the wetlands and restore tens of thousands of acres. Why? Because the Corps feared 20 private parking spaces for ships were inadvertently filling with sediment. Parking spaces trumped survival.

This decision must be reversed. With Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Louisiana residents agreeing - in some polls by more than 80 percent - that their economy and physical safety are significantly and immediately threatened unless the wetlands loss is reversed, the Corps’ ham-handed action might be the first shot fired in a fight over sediment.

Unlike water in the 19th-century West, though, this isn’t a zero-sum game. To navigation, sediment is a significant threat. To the delta, it’s a critical missing resource. In late 2007, Congress passed a law authorizing the Corps to revise its river management plan so that it could restore the Delta wetlands while maintaining navigation and flood control.

It also authorized an immediate program of system-scale pilot projects to take unwanted sediment out of navigation areas and use it to build wetlands. Both efforts remain unstarted, even though this year Louisiana put up more than $100 million to help fund this federal obligation, and promised continuing support.

As the economist Milton Friedman really did say, “Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

The people and leadership of Louisiana stand with national environmental groups, ready to join the Corps and the economic interests dependent on the river in forging this new plan. We’ve got a crisis, and the ideas are lying around, but if the Corps fails to pick up those ideas and grasp extended hands we may instead need a fight over dirt. Pass the whisky.

Paul Harrison is a senior director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Center for Rivers and Deltas. He focuses on restoration projects along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast.

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