Out On the Pavement, Thinkin’ ‘Bout the Water Table

When you’re in New Orleans, you can’t help but feel an ever-present sense of precariousness, since no matter in which direction you travel from the city center, you hit large-looming and often mercurial (and indeed, for this reason, mythical) bodies of water. When it rains (which it has, every day we’ve been here), even your skin can’t stop the water from penetrating your inner core—where, many feelings you once held firm are uprooted by the deluge, but also made new again by the sure benediction of water.

Gloomy, at times, is what it is.

I sat in bar earlier in the week—a great bar, with an even greater juke box—whose front door and windows faced a rather puny looking earthen levee, directly on the other side of which ran the Mississippi River, twisting and coiling on its way downstream, like a giant asp you hope just continues on without noticing you. Surely, I thought—and more than once—by some small alteration of course, a simple rearing back, this great snake could just swallow us whole?

I read that the original inhabitants of the area used it mostly as a portage between the nearby lakes and the river, and that permanent settlement was all but impossible—that is, until the French colonizers irrigated and drained the area in a northerly direction in order to create more dry ground and fertile soil for crops. The soil did get drier, but at the expense of its elevation; with the water table being depleted, the land sank into a bowl. The French also imported nutria to hunt for fur, but hunting could not stop the nutria from flourishing and eating many of the roots that once held the delta sediments in tact. Woops.

Many more changes were subsequently made, from slowing and polluting the river upstream (which means less mud is deposited downstream, which means an erosion of the natural levees the river had carved out over time) to building a network of canals, criss-crossing the entire coast and delta, which means even less coastal wetlands and other natural buffers.

Katrina (and then Rita) highlighted the error of these and other short-sighted decisions, but it doesn’t seem like anything is different now as a result. Or maybe the consequences of these past decisions are irrevocable.



One thought on “Out On the Pavement, Thinkin’ ‘Bout the Water Table

  1. There is such a thin fine line between us and disaster. New Orleans sort of sounds like a johad – built to acess groundwater and store the rain.

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