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Mud Matters–Really, It Does!

July 2, 2012Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on Mud Matters–Really, It Does!

Mud, or more properly known as “soil,” is one of the most critical, poorly-understood substances in the river world.  (Technical aside:  I know enough from talking with soil scientists not to say “dirt.”  But I don’t know if “mud” is technically acceptable, what the differences are between soils and sediments, etc.  But I think today’s story works without the technical specifics)

If you live in places like the Mississippi River Delta you know the importance of mud.  Mud from the Mississippi–former bits of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, etc.–made the delta landscape.  For the past few decades, unfortunately, that process has been limited, as the river has been choked by dams and channeled by levees to the point where vast quantities of mud are sent shooting out into the Gulf of Mexico.  The famous “dead zone” is largely a product of nutrients that are carried along with these sediments.

University of Minnesota Professor of Geology and Geophysics Chris Paola can tell these stories.  But he also has another goal: for his audiences to recognize that places such as the Mississippi Delta are beautiful and inherently interesting.  When he spoke at the University a couple of weeks ago, he urged “a little more respect for mud.”

Respect is in order.  According to Paola, whose work has taken him to delta complexes around the world, the wetlands in deltas support hundreds of millions of people through their utilization for agriculture, for aquaculture, as ports, as sources for oil and gas resources.  In the United States, 40% of the country’s wetlands are in the Mississippi River delta complex.

As noted above, these wetlands are disappearing, at an alarming rate.  With the notable exception of the Wax lake delta, where land growth has made observable gains in the past four decades, most of coastal Louisiana is eroding and subsiding.  The State of Louisiana has recently adopted a long term Coastal Protection and Restoration Plan, and there is hope that corrective actions will start having a measurable impact quickly.

Paola did not directly address specifics from this plan at his talk, but he did offer insights on “how to live with a living delta:

  • be soft–utilize less hardscape such as concrete, make structures more compact on the land, use mobile features where possible;
  • feed the wetlands–allow sediment back into the wetlands in carefully chosen spots and areas where there will be ecological as well as geological benefits
  • leave the low ground to nature–not places for towns, marinas, and the like

Here is a link to Paola’s talk, which is a powerful reminder to those of us up at the upstream end of the Mississippi River how important our actions are to people, lands, and waters at the river’s mouth.

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