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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

UTA speaker discusses Mississippi River’s dangers

Christopher+Morris
Christopher Morris
Christopher Morris
Christopher Morris

By Ryan Moore/reporter

The relationship between humans and their natural environment has shaped history and continues to shape the way humans live today, a historian told SE students April 24.

University of Texas at Arlington associate professor Christopher Morris discussed the history of the Mississippi River and explained how humans have interacted with the river over the years.

Hernando de Soto, one of the first Europeans to see the Mississippi, didn’t receive gifts of corn from the Native Americans as many paintings depict, but instead they gave him fish, Morris said. 

“They lived off of fishing,” he said. “They caught fish, they ate fish, and they also constructed places that were adapted to a very wet environment.”

After the Spanish left the Mississippi River Valley, the French came headed by Jacque Marquette, Robert de La Salle and Pierre d’Iberville. They wanted to harvest wheat, but the flooding and humidity wouldn’t let the crops flourish. They gave up and decided to grow rice, which, along with fish, became their primary food source, Morris said. The French adapted to the wet environment by changing their food and their structures. They built two-story buildings with the bottom floor being a storage place.

“When the city flooded, you just moved upstairs for four or six weeks,” he said.

Encouraged with their success with rice, Morris said they built levees to control the water that entered their crops and created canals that kept water out to plant dry crops like indigo, sugar and cotton. They began to “adapt the water to them,” he said.

As agriculture took over the wetlands, it created one large piece of dry land from Memphis to New Orleans, Morris said.

Levees built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were examples of massive water manipulation, causing floods and droughts, Morris said. With these floods and droughts ruining crops, a large pump was used to either put water into the crops or take water out.

“The water used to go back and forth on its own, but now we have this giant construction,” he said. “And the water has to be lifted back and forth.”

The levees helped prevent floods, but they created a bigger problem. When it rained, the water had no way to drain out to the river. It sat in the crops and became stagnant, providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which carried malaria and yellow fever.

Today, however, the lands around the Mississippi are wetter than they were 50 to 60 years ago because of the massive amount of catfish farms on the Mississippi Delta, Morris said.

“Rather than planting cotton on a dry Mississippi Valley, we are raising fish on a wet Mississippi Valley,” he said. “It has its problems, but rather than beating nature, we are figuring out how to join nature.”

The new homes in the flood plains of New Orleans and the lower Mississippi River Valley are being built to work with nature. Humans are slowly beginning to realize that they can’t control nature. They have to coincide with nature, Morris said.

The levees still have problems, however. They block the river from flooding, causing fresh sediment not to be replaced every year. This results in the ground becoming dry and sinking, which is why New Orleans is now below sea level, Morris said.

Right now, only half of the Mississippi flows by New Orleans. As the river flows, it builds up sediments along the levees causing pressure to build up.

“It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when,” he said. “The river will cease to flow in front of New Orleans, in which case, New Orleans will either sink into the Gulf or we will figure out someway to protect it as an island.”

SE student Selena Smith was surprised by what she learned about the Mississippi River and what it could do to New Orleans.

“I didn’t know that much about it [the Mississippi River], but the most surprising part was learning about the river changing course and turning New Orleans into an island or breaking it off into the ocean.”

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