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Changing Course: Navigating the Future of the Lower Mississippi River Delta

Mississippi River delta from 35,000 feet
Mississippi River delta from 35,000 feet (Photo credit: Flickr user Ben Harwood)

Daniel Burnham, the great designer and builder of cities from the early 20th century is famously quoted as saying:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”

As goes for cities, the same also holds for other large landscapes where little plans and partial fixes just won’t suffice. Such is the case with the Lower Mississippi River Delta, which is disappearing at the rate of one football field an hour. If nothing is done to change the course of events, the Delta is projected to be gone by 2100.

The stakes are high, and not just for Louisiana. Without the delta wetlands, the United States could lose 40 percent of its marshland, which is a prime wildlife habitat for hundreds of species: endangered mammals and reptiles, commercially-important seafood species, and migratory water fowl. Also in danger are crucial fisheries that produce 25 percent of American seafood in the lower 48 states, as well as extensive energy infrastructure, a critical asset since Louisiana is the top U.S. producer of offshore crude oil and number two producer of natural gas. Trade routes that connect America to the rest of the world are also affected, in particular the Port of South Louisiana, which handles more tonnage than any other international port and also acts as a gateway for other U.S. economies to reach the water, is in jeopardy. And, of course, at risk are all the jobs and ways of life associated with the Delta’s resources, affecting the approximately 2 million people that live in or near the Delta.

At risk are all the jobs and ways of life associated with the Delta’s resources, affecting the approximately 2 million people that live in or near the Delta.

The Mississippi River and delta are historically a single system, with the river carrying tons of rich, nutritious, land-building sediment down its over 2,300 mile length and depositing it south of New Orleans to build and replenish the Delta wetlands. But since 1923, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been managing the river for flood control and navigation to such a degree that the Delta is starved of that sediment. Now all that soil is pumped straight into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico where it contributes to the infamous Dead Zone of over-nitrified, under-oxygenated water.

The 2012 Louisiana Coastal Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast is a $50 billion, 50 year plan to guide restoration efforts through a bold, ambitious, and essential vision for the region’s future. But it did not get far on the most difficult challenge of all—finding workable ideas for improved river management to replenish the wetlands with sediment from Mississippi River itself.

With so much at stake and recognizing the once in a lifetime opportunity presenting itself—paired with the recent passing of the Restore Act to ensure BP oil spill penalties after the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010—in 2013 The Rockefeller Foundation backed the Environmental Defense Fund and the broad coalition of communities, companies, and other stakeholders it was working with, to develop Changing Course the Lower Mississippi River Delta Design Competition.

Today, the leadership team of Changing Course announced the selection of three teams to participate in the Changing Course Lower Mississippi River Delta design competition. The Rockefeller Foundation is a member of the leadership team and a core funder of the initiative since 2013, recognizing the mission ofChanging Course—to develop innovative designs for a self-sustaining Lower Mississippi River Delta as just the kind of big, paradigm-shifting idea that is needed to foster resilience at scale.

The Rockefeller Foundation is committed to spurring innovation in resilience planning and design that brings together multiple disciplines in new ways and creates bold ideas. The caliber of these three design teams demonstrates clearly the potential for the Mississippi River Delta to be an international model for resilient recovery. Their innovative ideas will benefit both the regional and national economy and the safety of area residents, particularly the most vulnerable, who are hit hardest by storms and coastal flooding.

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