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Engineering Nature

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I found the comment section on my bayou post of yesterday interesting for a couple of reasons, including that saving the marshes is an impossible task. This really is not true. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have shaped the river to satisfy a number of masters, including the petroleum and shipping industries, the U.S. and Louisiana governments, the desire of New Orleans residents to stay dry, and their own need to justify their existence and expansion. The Mississippi is a fully engineered river system. But the marshlands are still savable within that system. Obviously, no one is going to call for the Mississippi to flow freely, in no small part because of the likelihood and historical frequency of it changing course (which was a real worry last spring with the floods). That will happen someday and will cause a massive economic disaster for the United States. But short of that, much can still be done. Water can be diverted into canals throughout the system and then allowed to flood locally over the marshes while still allowing plenty of water for shipping needs. The levees can be broken downstream and water can pass through of its own volition. In fact, there are several test projects for restoring marshlands that have proven locally successful. It really doesn’t take a lot for the marshes to come back–just let the silt settle and the alligators and land will return.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that in the United States and most of the world in 2012, all landscapes are engineered and controlled spaces. Even wilderness areas are heavily managed, in this case to not be commercially or industrially developed. But these are completely artificial boundaries that say much about our relationship with the natural world. Given this reality, we can choose to engineer nature in any number of ways to serve any number of purposes. We can’t completely control nature of course, although most Americans have a very difficult time understanding this. But we can and do shape the land for commercial development, residential development, parkland, wilderness, whatever. Managing it to create marshes is a question of political will, not engineering.

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