June 14th, 2010
10:31 AM ET

Opinion: Use Mississippi River to stop the oil

G. Paul Kemp
Special to CNN

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/OPINION/06/13/kemp.oil.river/t1larg.mississippi.river.wetlands.gi.jpg caption="High water levels in Mississippi River helped reduce spill's impact on coast, says Paul Kemp. To continue protection, he believes flow should be increased by Army Corps of Engineers." width=300 height=169]

Editor's note: G. Paul Kemp, Ph.D., is vice president, Louisiana Coastal Initiative, for the National Audubon Society. A former associate research professor at Louisiana State University, he served in the early 1990s as the first executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to returning Louisiana's Mississippi River delta to environmental and economic sustainability.

(CNN) - Every catastrophe has its unsung heroes. In BP's oil spill disaster, one such hero is not a person but a river: the Mississippi River. But the river's strength is flagging, and unless our leaders change what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is doing, things could get a lot worse for our coastal marshes.

Many people know that the Mississippi River flows through the Crescent City, New Orleans, Louisiana; but fewer are aware that this is only one of two paths it takes to the Gulf. The Mississippi divides to create its delta upstream of Baton Rouge at a place called Old River. The Atchafalaya River is the western channel. In 1963, the Corps built a dam with sluice gates at Old River between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya to keep the shorter Atchafalaya route from "capturing" the whole river. Later, they built more structures to gain better control.

Today, every drop of water that goes down either the Mississippi or the Atchafalaya marches to the orders of the U.S. Army, which traditionally seeks to maintain a constant 70-to-30 percent split - with the larger amount going to the main-stem Mississippi - between the two river branches, by adjusting the gates at Old River on a daily basis.

The Corps has the opportunity to sustain discharge on the main stem of the river by altering that rigid 70-30 ratio to, say, send 80 percent past New Orleans. If ever there were a time to switch off "autopilot" and utilize the power of one of our country's most powerful natural forces, it is now.

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Filed under: Gulf Oil Spill
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