The River, Here and There

Published in an edited version in the La Crosse Tribune on Friday, February 24, 2012 under the headline “Like life, river tough to control. The entire essay appears here. A link to the La Crosse Tribune’s edited version is provided below.

Delta State University is located in Cleveland, Mississippi, 825 miles downriver from La Crosse. I was invited to speak there a while back and during an evening reception at my hosts’ home I was shown a mark on a hallway wall that showed where flood waters would reach if the levee system along the river gave way. The mark was about three feet up the wall and I was told that many homes in the area had similar marks, there as cautionary reminders of what might happen if local vigilance and the work of the Army Corps of Engineers someday failed.

Although Cleveland is about 20 miles east of the Mississippi those flood marks say it is really on the river. So are we all.

It is roughly 1,500 miles from the Mississippi’s source at Lake Itasca, in Minnesota, to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana’s bayou country. The river drops 1,425 feet over that distance; roughly a foot per mile. Today, a drop of water beginning its journey at Lake Itasca will take 90 days to reach the Gulf. Using knowledge I gained as a boy while dropping sticks into rivers of snow melt flowing along curbs, I’d say that by the time that drop of water waves bye-bye to Riverside Park in La Crosse it still has 70 days of travel ahead of it.

If the levees and dams upstream from La Crosse weren’t there the drop of water might be tempted to stay a while. It, and the silt it carries, might stay to enrich the wetlands along the river and its tributaries and perpetuate a cycle of life that was doing pretty well before we came along to intervene.

On the other hand, if those levees and dams weren’t there barge navigation as far north as Minneapolis would not be possible and many homes and businesses along the river would not exist; none of that and more would, at least as we know it today.

During an afternoon during my visit to Cleveland, I was taken on a tour of the levees. You can read about their history or you can listen to it in Lyle Lovett’s rendition of “I Will Rise Up.” It seems that back in the bad old Delta days when the river threatened to breach the levees, persons unknown were sent across the river from the Mississippi side to blow the levees on the Arkansas side. Thus, the water that threatened both sides became a problem for only one of the sides.

That’s a dramatic example from a mostly unattractive history of our attempts to control the Mississippi. It only differs by degrees from the seemingly benign attempts upstream here in Wisconsin. Nevertheless, what we do to water here we do to water everywhere. New Orleans wouldn’t have to cower behind its levees and worry as much about the next Katrina if the levees and locks and dams above and below La Crosse were absent so the river could spread onto its natural floodplains during spring runoffs and exceptional summer rains. Perhaps Arcadia wouldn’t be as concerned about the Trempealeau River if the wetlands that disappeared to make way for Ashley Furniture’s expansion were still in their original location.

But you’ve heard all this so many times before that by now it’s just part of the background noise of Coulee Region life.  Besides, the news is telling us that this spring flooding is forecast to be minimal. We could use this probable reprieve from the Earth to think about what might yet happen if we don’t consider the results of the choices we make when we choose to intervene against the natural order of water. Or we could borrow a page from this season’s impractical guide to ice fishing and venture farther out onto this thin ice while hoping for what we shortsightedly define as the best.

Link to the edited version in the La Crosse Tribune:

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