Many Americans are more familiar with the beginning of the Mississippi River― its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota―than they are with its remarkable end. Fittingly, the Mississippi River brings its 4,000-mile journey through ten states to a spectacular finale at the Gulf of Mexico. This end point of the Mississippi River, known as the “Delta,” is an awe-inspiring phenomenon that contributes not only to the beauty of the region, but also serves to protect Louisiana communities from storm surges.
The Delta of the Mississippi River is a peculiarly immense landform sitting between the river and the Gulf. This ecologically unique region spans nearly 8,000 miles, making it larger than the state of Massachusetts. This area is divided into three primary subdeltas: the Atchafalaya, the Teche, and the Bird’s Foot Delta. Of the three, the most famous is the Bird’s Foot Delta because it nearly ends in a fan shape. Federal regulations prevent disturbance in the Delta, allowing for the growth of thousands of plants, shrubs, and trees. This diverse environment serves as a critical stop for many species of waterfowls, and in addition to containing a large number of wildlife, wetlands in the Delta area are also a significant source of food.
The science behind the formation of the Delta is equally as impressive as its beauty. To understand the Mississippi Delta’s unique shape and land form, it is important to understand the pathways of the mighty Mississippi. The Mississippi River transitions from a channelized state to a distributary into the deltaic plain when the river interacts with its coastal waters. This mix of freshwater and saltwater creates a unique sedimentary environment of silt and clay. Over time, the mixture of these sedimentary inputs form braided bayous and large lakes and ponds, ultimately creating the sprawling Delta.
The importance of the Delta, both economically and environmentally, is substantial. Its expansive wetlands provide scenic beauty and bring in international tourism dollars and the economic power of the sportsman’s industry. Vast expanses of wetlands also help protect coastal communities from storms and surges, making it a valuable defense against natural disasters.
This watery ecosystem also benefits from the influence of the Mississippi River which keeps acreages alive with a mix of sweet and salty seawater, allowing for the growth of vegetation that provides habitats for many species of fish and other organisms. The Delta’s soil is also rich in nutrients, allowing for the growth of many crops and improving soil quality. This rich and resilient network of the Delta continues to have a powerful impact in almost every aspect.
The Delta of the Mississippi is massive and rich in resources but humanity has impacted the area, including the shrinking of wetland acreage. Flood control, oil and gas infrastructure, the diversion of rivers, and other factors have led to the ever-changing landscape of this region, compromising the ecology and wildlife.
In terms of wetland loss, most of the negative impact is due to the construction of thousands of miles of levees designed to decrease floods and protect coastal towns along the Mississippi River. This protection however comes with an unintended cost: the Katrina that hit the area in 2005. These levees caused the Mississippi River to deposit its sediment way out into the Gulf instead of in the wetlands, leading to the loss of thousands of acres of wetlands.
The State of the Delta Today
Today, the state of the Mississippi Delta is improving, albeit slowly. The Upper Mississippi Watershed recognizes the importance of the Delta and is attempting to restore thousands of acres of wetlands. In addition, new technology allows soil-conservationists to both track and restore the Delta to protect against further harm.
The Delta’s resistance and resilience are remarkable, allowing for the protection of thousands of acres of wetland, the continued growth of plant and animal life, and improved tourism, crops and habitats. At each bend in the river, the Delta is constantly adapting and transforming in response to environmental changes.
Environmental Solutions for The Delta
In response to the changing environment of the Delta, many environmental groups, researchers and government officials have identified several solutions. One key area of focus is the bridge and coastal infrastructure being built along the river. Great care should be taken in the placement of levees and other infrastructure to ensure the Delta’s ecological health is preserved as much as possible.
The Delta of The Mississippi River also has numerous recreational offerings, including both sports and nature activities. Ecotourism is growing in the area and providing locals with another source of income. The tourism market is discovering the diverse environment of the Delta, which includes opportunities to boat, fish, camp and bird-watch.
Furthermore, preserving the Delta’s wetlands is a key challenge. Without these wetlands, the entire Delta will suffer. There are efforts to enact policies and regulations to help protect the Delta from further damage, such as protecting certain areas from exploitation via mining and drilling. Efforts to protect and preserve the Delta will require a “whole ecosystem approach” in order to preserve the delicate balance between terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.
The Importance of Wetland Restoration
Wetland restoration is also an important focus in preserving the Delta. Wetlands are incredibly important for many species of animals and provide an important source of food, oxygen and fresh water. Restoring a wetland involves reintroducing water and disposing waste or runoff properly. Institutions such as The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have identified and prioritized the most essential areas in need of timely restoration.
In addition, the public needs to be educated and shown ways they can personally contribute to help preserve the Delta. This includes not only creating an understanding of the importance of the Delta, but also inciting personal involvement in the preservation of the Delta through action.
The Importance of Awareness and Education
To protect the Delta, it is important to increase public awareness and expand educational programs aimed at inspiring people to learn about the Delta and its importance. These educational materials should be aimed specifically towards youths and those living the most affected areas.
Working with local leaders is also important, as local residents understand the Delta better than anyone. These individuals also know what actions are necessary for preserving the Delta in the best possible fashion for both humans and wildlife.
In addition to these more tangible solutions, more should also be done to encourage people to discover the beauty of the Delta and all it has to offer. It is hoped that this would create a value for the Delta. It can be argued that, if people are aware of the Delta’s existence, then they would be more likely to care and help protect it.
The Delta of the Mississippi River is a unique, complex and vital ecosystem. It’s a spectacular land form that provides both economically and ecologically, while providing incredible recreational and ecological opportunities. The health of this Delta is closely tied to humans’ management of it: using it responsibly, protecting it, and valuing its beauty.