Ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, can not tame that lawless stream, can not curb it or confine it, can not say to it, Go here or Go there, and make it obey. —Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Twain’s pessimism has done little to deter the Mississippi River Commission. Since it was created in 1879, this division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has waged a prolonged campaign to control the river. Their weapons in the battle are levees, dams, spillways, dikes, weirs and other pieces of infrastructure. Their mission is to prevent the river from abandoning its current course.

Left alone, nature would probably send the Lower Mississippi River whipping back and forth across a 200-mile arc every few thousand years. Like “a pianist playing with one hand,” is how John McPhee described the river’s restlessness in a story for The New Yorker. With the main channel flowing unusually far to the east in its current configuration, the Mississippi is primed to snap back toward the west. Such a change would send most of the Mississippi’s flow into the Atchafalaya River, a distributory (the opposite of a tributary) of the Mississippi and Red Rivers. Such a change would pose an existential crisis for port cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge, starving them of the water that has come to define them.

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The NASA Earth Observatory, March 2015