Destroying Levees in Louisiana
In the 1960s, a group of businessmen bought 16,000 acres of swampy bottomland along the Ouachita River in northern Louisiana and built miles of levee around it. They bulldozed its oak and cypress trees and, when the land dried out, turned it into a soybean farm.
Now two brothers who grew up nearby are undoing all that work. In what experts are calling the biggest levee-busting operation ever in North America, the brothers plan to return the muddy river to its ancient floodplain, coaxing back plants and animals that flourished there when President Thomas Jefferson first had the land surveyed in 1804.
The idea goes against the grain in Louisiana, where people have battled river flooding since colonial days. European settlers were often required to build levees to establish homesteading claims; in recent decades, landowners built levees to create farmland by the hundreds of thousands of acres. Hurricane Katrina brought a clamor for more and stronger levees to protect people and buildings farther south.
Yet at the same time, there is a growing awareness that Louisiana’s levees have exacted a huge environmental cost. Inland, cypress forests and wetlands crucial for migrating waterfowl have vanished; in southern Louisiana, coastal marshes deprived of regular infusions of sediment-rich river water have yielded by the mile to an encroaching Gulf of Mexico. Some scientists have suggested opening levees south of New Orleans so the Mississippi River can flow normally into the swamps.