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National Geographic Fellow Weighs in on Mississippi Flood Defenses

May 10, 2011

National Geographic’s NewsWatch last week featured an essay by Sandra Postel, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, “Mississippi Floods Can Be Restrained With Natural Defenses” :

The destruction of 35 million acres of wetlands — an area the size of Illinois — in the upper Mississippi River basin has increased flood risks to cities and farms downstream. One way to protect against floods has stood the tests of thousands of years: the ecosystem of wetlands and flood plains natural to big rivers.  Instead of letting this ecological infrastructure degrade further, U.S. federal and state authorities should work to expand and rebuild it.

The jist sounds familiar, but what got me to take notice was her visuals—I am a map guy, and I expect nothing less from National Geographic.

Wow.  The top NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) images was acquired 29 April 2011.  Compare to the bottom half from one year earlier.  The author goes on to describe the effects of the Army Corp of Engineers decision to blow out 2-miles of the levees to protect Cairo, Illinois.

I’ll let you work out the science and policy of wetlands, land use and “climate change” in your own jurisdiction (the science, I believe, is not quite as clear as many would have us believe).  Setting that aside, my take-away is that major rivers do not stand alone.  They are part of a larger watershed, and decisions upstream have consequences downstream.  No, not an original or creative insight.  But between the all or nothing extremes, there is a lot of important work to be done.  The River goes where the River wants to go.  We can fight it, or we can dance with it, and when we dance with the river we have to let it lead now and then.  Or else Old Man River gets a bit cranky.

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From → Natural Hazards

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