Who Needs Swamps? Why New Orleans Suffered 

“Water, Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink!"

BY Editor of Eco-Poetry.org/  Daniela Gioseffi 

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Daniela Gioseffi with Bill McKibben at "Do the Math" New York City 350.org Event, 2012. 

        "Why are you taking me to this swamp?” my old mother complained when I took her walking to see my favorite trail between two lakes. We were walking on an old, deserted railroad bed between two wetlands or marshes of a lake made by the spreading tributary of the Delaware River where I’d caught my most exciting views of wildlife since moving in 1990 to the rural Delaware valley of Northwest, New Jersey. To my elderly mother it was a swamp, an undesirable place to be, associated with her poverty stricken youth as a migrant farm worker on Long Island. Suddenly, I realized that what she called “a swamp,” with an ugly tone, was to me a treasured place called “a wetland” full of the mellifluous tones of song sparrows and migrating warblers: A wetland was to me a place that supported every manner of wildlithat I sought to observe in its natural habitat. 


     A swamp to my old mother was an undesirable muddy place smelling of decaying vegetation and swarming with mosquitoes, a land where no one would want to be. For me, a wetland on the edge of a river delta, lake or bay was a place where I’d seen an otter swim, a mink catch an eel, a muskrat build a home, a wood-duck shelter its young, a green-backed heron fish, mallards and baby geese dabble and fragrant water lilies waft their aroma in the wind. I realized that even though my mother had been a country girl in a family of migrant farmers on Long Island, she knew little of wildlife and cared nothing for wetlands that to me, an avid birder, harbored everything desirable. I thought, too, of how she called the squirrels on my deck, “rats with bushy tails.” True, squirrels are of the rodent family, but I was thrilled by the agility of red squirrels and the flying-squirrels that I’d never seen in the city where only grey squirrels live in parks.

     Was it a generational thing? Or was it that city girls appreciated wetlands, and country girls brought up in poverty near swamps, longed for dry city streets and the sophisticated culture, theatres, shopping, and well-equipped hospitals found in a metropolis? In any case, I realized that people of my mother’s working class, immigrant generation were unschooled in the importance of wetlands, and unconcerned with saving what people of my ecologically educated generation have learned to view as important habitat for wildlife and a system of filtration for ground waters and rivers. I also realized that development had been the important endeavor of her times, where my age had been concerned with overdevelopment, diminishing forests and open lands. Since more than half of the population of the United States is over the age of 65 years, could that be a problem for environmental educators to tackle, given that the elderly were our biggest voting block? I realized that the great working class majority of my mother’s generation probably knew little of how wetlands filter water to keep land and adjacent ground waters and aquifers toxic free. My mother died in 2000 at the age of 88 years. She would never know how much the destruction of the Mississippi Delta’s wetlands on the Gold Coast of our Gulf states, like Louisiana, had led to the catastrophe of New Orleans in the infamous hurricane now known as Katrina—not entirely all, as many were made to believe, a natural disaster, but to a large measure, an unnatural, manmade one.

     The flooding of New Orleans by Katrina in 2005, and again in the summer of 2012 by Hurricane Isaac, wrought by the rushing of ocean waters inland over coastal areas was intensified by man made canals and levees that were cut through the marshes or wetlands. Powerful flood surges up the canals into the city had burst the levees carrying the force of tidal waves inland. A natural and undisturbed delta of wetlands and marshes would have absorbed more of the waters of the sea as they rushed into the coastal floodplains “Swamps,” as my mother called them, were good things, not dirty bad things. Marshes, wetlands, swamps are filters for toxins that run off from asphalt roadways, and chemical plants. They soak up waters that would otherwise flood more rapidly inland. They also provide a home for myriad forms of wildlife that feed other forms of wildlife, some of which end up on human tables in the course of the food chain. Wetlands and marshes of deltas and swamps are part of nature’s design and not to be messed with if one wanted to insure abundance of wildlife and prevent flooding, as well as filter stream and river waters as they run down from mountain tops to the sea carrying silt and sediment that builds and refurbishes the coastal plains.The New Orleans disasters have taught us a huge lesson about how awful it is to destroy natural marshes and wetlands of deltas that protect human and wildlife habitat within flood plains. They help to contain the rushing waters of incoming sea storms and hurricanes when waters ride high and crash into land. We’ve learned that humans should not build homes and cities in floodplains in the Age of Global Warming now upon us. If there is any sweetness at all to the adversity caused by Hurricane Katrina’s or Isaac’s wrath, it’s that there is now, more than ever, attention being paid to the truth of Global Warming, known variously as The Green House Effect, Climate Change, Climate Crisis, Climate Catastrophe or “Climate Emergency” as Al Gore and others are now calling it. Whatever we call it, the phenomenon is already flooding homes within low-lying island shores and coastal plains and is bound to send stormy waters rising higher and higher over areas like the flood plains of New Orleans and many port cities around the globe. We are now living in an age when we might well find, “Water, water everywhere and not a clean drop to drink!”

       This is the irony of our time when for the salvation of human life on the planet, the industrial revolution must come to an educated halt of thoughtlessly built nuclear and chemical plants, oil refineries, and toxic waste dumps built in flood plains. Such facilities can, will and have contaminated waters and subsequently ground waters and reservoirs as well—when facilities, such as those at Fukushima, Japan, are damaged, destroyed and flooded by hurricanes, tidal waves or tsunami and Katrina disasters like those in Sri Lanka, Japan, and New Orleans.

     There is so much that we do not understand about the vitality of our waterways, rivers, deltas, oceans and mountain lakes. How many of us stop to think of how much the rain that falls on the tops of mountains trickles down stearms and rivers to end up running out of faucets into our pitchers. And what of the sort of mining that allows whole tops of mountains to be lopped off causing mud slides down into towns and villages, changing the course of rivers? Strip mining of mountains is a whole other issue that impacts on the flow of water, but how little we think of such matters as we go about our daily lives— unless we chose environmental studies as our specialty. Yet, such issues affect our lives and our children’s’ and grandchildren’s well being even more directly than the nutrition, education, and healthcare we provide for them.

     Though this is obvious knowledge to some of us, are school children really adequately taught about the balances of nature’s eco-systems, photosynthesis or the atmospheric balance by which they breathe and live? Do the elderly understand the vitality of environmental issues when much of our population is urban bound? Do we think of photosynthesis or atmospheric balance as we walk along city streets to shop at super-markets and breathe smoggy air? Do we think of these issues when we vote reckless developers and anti-environmentalists into office to pander to us about jobs and the economy, who care only for profits from fossil fuel development and hydro-fracking, more than our need for clean drinking water and breathable air?

      How often do politicians care about where water, the major sustenance of all life, comes from and begins its regenerative life on mountaintops to flow down mountainsides into lakes, rivers, aquifers and reservoirs? Are we taught the simple fact that ground waters are connected under the earth in aquifers that flow running into each other like underground rivers? Do they know that the fertilizers and weed killers put on their lawns end up in their ground waters causing nitrate levels that brain-damage our children and poison our wells, raising cancer rates everywhere?

     I’m sure my mother with her hatred of swamps never thought about such matters nor was taught such simple truths in school, yet she was an excellent gardener who loved to grow vegetables and flowers from chemically fertilized soil. The chemical fertilizer “Miracle-Grow” was her garden mantra. She hated weeds with a passion, never stopping to think that weeds are simply wildflowers and natural plants that hold earth from washing away.

    I know that I, even at 65 years, of age barely had the chance for an education about where my drinking water comes from or how food gets to my table. Now at 71, I am better educated on such matters, but wonder how many people stopped on the streets of my large New York City metropolis would know what photosynthesis or atmospheric balance are and how they live by it daily. Few would be able to say where the drinking water from their faucets comes from. All such wonders were unveiled to me later in life when conservation and environmental knowledge began to emerge out of the dangerous necessity of our over industrialized age. Certainly, I, as an English major attending a state college had little education in such matters. I was given one week at a Conservation Studies Camp as a junior at Montclair State College in 1962, but did I really focus on what I learned there? Conservation Studies produced no grade for my transcript that mattered to my career. It was simply a required course checked off if completed. 

    At that naive age, I disliked having to dress in hiking clothes and shoes and spend a week drudging around woods and eating at campfires. Insects were anathema and turtles, frogs and snakes held no delight to behold as they do for me now in this age of threatened amphibian life, signaling our own demise like canaries in cold mines. Bees were simply insects that held a sting, not pollinators of fruits and vegetable flowers. Dragonflies were flying needles, not food for fish and we had no idea they held no sting for humans. Bats were creatures out of horror movies, not the pollinaters of rain forests flowers and fruits, or the phenomenal insect eaters of the night. Mosquitoes seemed an entirely useless invention of the creator. Who knew they were fish and bird food in the ecological balances of nature? Butterflies were pretty to watch, but we didn’t think of them as pollinators. 

    How much, for that matter, do we understand about our rivers and how many of them are dying from pollution or from damming for electrical production? Do we know how the damming of rivers, especilly these days in India and China, but here in America, too, are destroying ancient villages and antique cultures as well as wildlife, and land and causing disasters for others who live far off from dams along the banks of rivers? I recently viewed an artfully created Chinese film titled “Balzac and the Little Seamstress” about village life in China’s Steppes among the peoples of the mountainous highlands of the great Yangtze River. It showed the tragic human drama caused by the damming of that great river when entire villages and ecologically sound cultures disappeared in the name of progress.

    Some of us are aware of The International Rivers Network championed by such activist writers as Arundhati Roy and Vandana Shiva. IRN supports local communities working to protect their rivers and watersheds. It works to halt destructive river development projects, and to encourage equitable and sustainable methods of meeting needs for water, energy and flood management. Over development, worldwide, is disrupting the course of great rivers causing draughts and floods and loss of lives in the millions along with the cultural ways and architectural treasures of whole villages of citizens who live along their banks. Archeological knowledge is also being lost in damming projects. The International Rivers Network has made great strides in the last twenty years since it’s inception, but there is still much work to be done.

      To speak adequately of the devastation of rivers in the name of profit and progress would be a whole book or long essay in itself, but let us take for an example the life of a great river of my homeland, The United States of America, a river that has been on the list of endangered rivers for some time, among the top ten, according to several environmental groups and sources. [See, also, http://www.AmericanRiversorg/]Let us look closely for a moment at The Great Mississippi, enshrined forever in the works of one of our greatest American writers, Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Clemens, born of that great river upon which Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s classic American novel is staged. “Mark Twain” is an antique river phrase designating two fathoms, the depth for safe steamboat operation along the Mississippi. Samuel Clemens, who worked as a “cub pilot” along the river, would later adopt the term as his pen name. But, what do we literate people know about the great Mississippi River itself? How much does the average American school child understand about the vitality of that great river and its importance to his or her homeland? How many Americans realize that the Mississippi River is the third longest river in the world, that it drains more than 40 per cent of the continental United States—including all or part of 31 states and two Canadian Provinces. It supplies drinking water for over 18 million people, while more than 12 million live in the 125 counties and municipalities that border its banks.

    These facts about the Great River have been gleaned from The Sierra Club as well as from other sources listed in the endnotes. Water that falls from the sky fills Lake Itasca where the Mississippi begins its 2,350 mile journey from it’s headwaters in Minnesota before many large tributaries flow into it to be drained into the Gulf of Mexico. A raindrop that falls into Lake Itasca takes only about 90 days to reach the gulf as it journeys through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, carrying waters of the large Minnesota, Des Moines, Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers, as well as many smaller tributaries, out to the sea. Along its banks lie 87 federal parks and refuges, and 1,100 National Historic Registered sites with more than 150 visitor centers and Museums located along its course. Yet, it is listed by conservation groups, as for example American Rivers, as sixth among the top ten most endangered rivers in the country. Its endangerment is greatly caused by a U.S. Army Corps of engineers’ proposals to build two flood-control projects that would damage 200,000 acres of rare floodplain wetlands. The irony is that New Orleans has been sinking into the sea for years because of its damaged wetlands and delta, and because of various damming project along its banks. How many of us understand that over-damming rivers makes them die? That the recent disaster in New Orleans occurred on such a grand scale because of the canals cut through the wetlands and marshes of Louisiana’s coast that act like sponges to absorb flood waters, and because damming upper reaches of the river has starved New Orleans of the silt and sediment needed to keep it above sea level. Environmentalists believe that it was a surge up a large canal that overpowered the levee system’s ability to hold, coupled with the loss of marshes and wetland that would have sponged up much of the waters rushing into the city. Aside from the disaster of flooding populated areas, it’s important to realize that pollution is an important issue, too. The use of the great river as as sewer, and toxic waste dump, has also threatened all life along its banks and bayous.

      Life usually abounds where river meets ocean, but the degradation of the Mississippi by overdevelopment of dams and canals, and excess plants nutrients from farm fertilizers, manure, vast acreages of row crops, particularly corn and soybeans grown in Iowa, draining from feedlots along with pesticides, coupled with municipal sewage and toxic waste has created what environmentalist call “a dead zone” at the mouth of the river. 

      Toxic waste is brought from large cities like Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans into the rivers course to say nothing of all the other municipalities and farm fields along its banks. This murky water which picks up other toxic industrial waste from cities like St. Louis finally flows through the infamous “Cancer Corridor’ of Louisiana’s petrochemical plants which discharge their poison-laden wastewater into the Mississippi as it flows out to sea.Thus, over the centuries of industrial and agricultural development along its banks and in its bayous, the Mississippi has created what oceanographers and marine biologists call a “Dead Zone” where the growth of algae, great blooms of it, nourished by nitrogen and phosphorus, have sunk to the bottom of the gulf where they die and decompose consuming the oxygen needed to sustain other forms of aquatic life from fish to amphibians, as well as marsh and seabirds.Then too, eroding farm fields send too much sand and silt into fish and wildlife sloughs, side-channels, and shallow lakes along the river’s banks strangling and suffocating the aquatic life that used to thrive there. This is compounded by the manmade dams and locks built all along the river that trap sediment and silt, hindering its movement into the wetlands of New Orleans, preventing it from being flushed downstream where it can be washed into the freshwater marshes at the Mississippi’s mouth in Louisiana where the sediment starved, crescent shaped City of New Orleans is sinking into the sea causing the Army Corps of Engineers to simply want to build higher and higher levees even as they cut bigger and bigger canals into the delta and bayous. 

    It’s true that the Mississippi River valley generates over $7 billion a year in agricultural and forest products, plus $29, billion in manufactured goods along its banks every year, while it provides transport for more than 472 million tons of cargo, including nearly half of all the grain exported from the United States annually, but how long will it continue to be able to do this when the communities of poor and laboring populations who live along its banks are being swept away? Indeed, in the summer of 2012 the great river became too shallow for carrying cargo due to the extensive droughts brought on by Climate Change. And, what good is billions of profis to an economy if it is cancelled out by greater billions of destruction and rebuilding costs? For it is the laborers who live along the banks of rivers, and in the low lying flood plains and deltas, who suffer most.When Langston Hughes, celebrated African American poet, wrote his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” that was the resonant meaning in his art when he wrote, " I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. / My soul has grown deep like the rivers. / I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. /  I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. / I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. / I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, / and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset…."The Yangtze, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile, the Tiber, the Amazon, the Ganges, the Amur, the Volga, the Congo, the Mississippi, the great rivers of Earth have always been the source from which civilization rises. They are celebrated in the various cultures that spring from them. From Mark Twain ‘s Huckelberry Finn, or Horatius at the Bridge to Steamboat Willie, rivers are the source of industry and transport. The people who are flooded most are the workers who live along them, for the rich tend to move away from their floodplains to higher ground. The workers along the Mississippi River provide the agricultural and forest products, and manufactured goods transported to the gulf. If they cannot live and work along the river without being drowned or poisoned, the river will lose its productivity for the rich of a given economy as well. In the recent, 2005 Katrina and Rita disasters the productivity of the Mississippi Valley and the gulf was set backwards in the many billions to be put in the red for some years to come.How sad to think that this phenomenal river named by the Ojibwe Indians of Wisconsin, “Missi Sipi” meaning “Great River” is dying and bringing with it great groans of human destruction in the path of its death. Born in the Pleistocene Age, it is about 20,000 years old as human’s know it. Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, a 53 foot cascade of “falling waters,” named by the Sioux, was the site immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his Song of Hiawatha. The Great River attracts more than 12 million visitors annually to its banks to spend $1.2 billion dollars in the tourist trade providing approximately 18,000 related jobs. Its flyway is the migration corridor for 60 percent of North America’s waterfowl and shorebirds comprising 326 species of avian life. 

    From the mouth of the Mackenzie River in the Arctic to the Mississippi Delta, this magnificent flyway comprises thousands of miles of uninterrupted passage for migrating species and the 40 miles of its upper reaches is the single most important inland area for migrating ducks in the entire United States. The well being of bird, amphibian, and other wildlife is a barometer for survival of all forms of life on earth, including human, as any environmentalist knows.

      A disastrous flood in 1993 caused more than 50 deaths and over $12 billion in destruction, even though 26.5 million sandbags were used to shore up 150 levees in the watershed of the Mississippi.

    Scientists estimated that strategic restoration of just 5 % of critical wetlands could easily have handled floodwaters that wrought damages in the 1993 flood. There was plenty of warning as to what was needed to prevent a disaster of the magnitude of the recent 2005 hurricane Katrina, but had they been heeded when hurricane Isaac struck again in 2012? There are natural solutions to such manmade disasters. The conservation Research Enhancement Program reduces the pollutants, sediments and chemicals that leak into the Minnesota and Illinois Rivers. That program if allowed to continue would protect up to 200,000 acres of flood prone land along the upper Mississippi’s degraded tributaries. For many years, Minneapolis and St. Paul relied on a system of underground pipes that served as both storm drains and sewers. A heavy flow of rainwater would exceed the system’s capability, causing an overflow and spill of raw sewage into the river. Wisconsin sued Minnesota for causing these hazardous sewage spills. The Twin Cities undertook an environmentally sound improvement project and Minnesota upgraded its waste treatment systems. This greatly improved water quality downstream. 

    But, there are 1,200 cities in the Mississippi watershed that need upgrading of their waste systems. Most continue to pollute the river with sewage and other toxic waste. Still, improvements can be made which in the long run are highly cost effective. Restoring the delta and bayous and allowing the wetlands to again provide their natural sponging and filtering effects would greatly minimize flood damage from hurricanes up river. According to a White Paper, titled “Unnatural Disaster” published by the American Rivers project, one acre of wetland saturated to a one-foot depth, can soak up 330,000 gallons of water. That is enough water to flood 13 average sized homes thigh deep. Healthy wetlands are the first protection against coastal flooding, but wetlands that have been drained, filled in, or isolated behind levees can do nothing to protect against flooding.  A chief element to creating a sustainable future for the Mississippi River and Louisiana Coast, as the Mississippi River Basin Alliance pointed out in an article following hurricane Katrina, is to protect and restore coastal wetlands.

    “Swamps and marshes and other wetlands are a critical means for dispersing and absorbing floodwaters. Protecting them helps protect New Orleans and surrounding parishes from future storms and sea-level rise.”Also, allowing natural sediment to rebuild the deltas wetlands would keep New Orleans from continuing to sink further below sea level to destruction. The devastation caused by over-development and mismanagement can be corrected over time, but a commitment to nature’s needs in balance with human needs is required. If there is any good that has come from the Katrina and now the Isaac disasters in 2012 at the mouth of the Mississippi and in the Gulf states, it is an increased awareness on the part of Americans that Global Warming or Climate Crisis Emergency is most definitely upon us and effecting our lives. Bill McKibben, prominent climatologist warns that with nearly half of the icecaps melting away in 2012, and floods and droughts occurring in record amounts, with the 2012 hottest summer on record worldwide, we have little time to avoid even greater major catastrophes of all kinds. A Climate Emergency is upon us, as Al Gore, Nobel Laureate, has been warning for some time in "An Inconvenient Truth."

     Surely, it is time to educate our elders, with their voting power, as much as our children, about the meaning of a “swamp” or a wetland. It is too late for my old mother to understand that I was taking her for a walk in a vital and beautiful, necessary wetland, but the seniors of my generation who hold the voting and protest power of the land, must be made to understand as much as the children who are coming up behind them. Unless we realize the vitality of swamps, wetlands, marshes, and deltas to our well being and the health of our great rivers, there may be no hope for our children and grandchildren, and the labors of our lives spent in raising families will have been in vain. We will not pass life on to coming generations, the truest hope of our immortality. 

   While Healthcare needs, Medicare and Social Security are threatened by rising deficit spending, is it right to throw good money after bad by rebuilding levees and dams that nature and global warming will eventually overpower again, wasting and re-wasting human resources? Is it wise to build and rebuild in flood plains and waste resources doing so? Or do plans for rebuilding coastal areas need serious rethinking more in tune with what nature intended for our great rivers and their deltas, marshes, and coastal floodplains? Trying to continually hold back the waters and drain the swamps and wetlands for industrial and agricultural needs will only lead to more and more costly manmade disasters in the Age of Climate Crisis and Global Warming—with more frequent and powerful storms and floods expected to take their toll on manmade structures meant to hold out water or change its course.More death and devastation will be suffered, particularly among working class and poor peoples who labor along our great rivers, and industrial profit will not be realized for anyone. What is needed is for towns and villages to pull back to higher grounds from floodplains and coastal areas and let nature rebuild her swamps, deltas, and wetlands. Or, we will likely find our grandchildren with, “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink?” 

     As I say in my poem, Titled One Wet Planet, in this Eco-Poetry feature, "We are all one human family bound by one wet planet, under one sun, living in moon mutant nations where all children's ears hear "Songs of Innocence," as corporation’s apes of toxic wastes breathe chemical greed, bloated powers bigger than all our vulnerable flesh lives, or little seeds of giant Sequoia trees, most ancient living things of earth, older than king's tombs, true cathedrals of the blue Pacific as she rocks, swirling melodies with the Atlantic's green currents, currencies, rain songs, sounds swell wells, lakes, faucets, brooks' runes, rivers' tunes, mystic drafts of summer wetness, cool drink seeping into thirst! Earth, nearly all water of which we are made one human bound by one wet planet under one maddening moon, under one arrogant sun, under one pale watery moon, under one bright thirsty sun,"and our planet home, Earth, nearly all water, is dying along with her great rivers and oceans upon which human life depends.There’s merely an inch of time in which to save her!

List of Resources:American Rivers http://www.amrivers.org/mississippiriver/

326 West 3rd St. Rm. 714, Davenport, IA 52801.

EPA’s Gulf of Mexico Program, http://pelican.gmpo.gov/

Office of Public Affairs, 1103, Rm. 202, Stennis Space Center, MS. 39529. 

InternationalRivers Network: http://www.irn.org/
1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703, USA

Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee,

Mississippi River Basin Alliance, http://www.mrba.org/
​708 North 1st St. #238, Minneapolis, MN 55401.Mississippi Headwaters Board

County Courthouse, PO Box 3000, Walker, MN. 56484. Mississippi River Museum,
P.O. Box 266, 3rd St. Icer Harbor, Dubuque, IA 52004.

Sierra Club, Sierra magazine, Nov./Dec. 2001, "America’s Favorite River: The Mississippi,"
by Dean Rebbufoni. 85 Second St. San Francisco, CA. 94105.

Union of Concerned Scientists: http//www.ucsusa.org/

Bill McKibben's activist organization re. reducing carbon emissions
​http://www.350.org/Al Gore's latest book: OUR CHOICE:

How to Solve the Climate Crisis Now Upon US. http://ourchoicethebook.co