Imagine citizens who don’t know of their nation’s fifth largest river, much less its name. Imagine bureaucrats who acknowledge but disregard warnings of impending disaster along its floodplain. Imagine that, for political gain, legislators invest taxpayers’ money in projects that increase the peril. Welcome to the Atchafalaya.
Why should Americans care? Because the billions of dollars Congress already has spent and the billions more they are poised to spend in the Lower Mississippi Basin, most visibly around New Orleans, will not only prove to be a colossal waste; the projects jeopardize the lives of thousands of people who live there.
The Atchafalaya River is a distributary of the Mississippi. Tributaries bring water to a river; distributaries carry some away. Nearly everyone has heard of the Missouri River, a tributary. The Atchafalaya carries three times the water away from the Mississippi as the Missouri brings to it.
Before reaching the Gulf, the Mississippi travels twice as far as the Atchafalaya from the point where the rivers split. Thus, the Atchafalaya’s water moves faster, causing more erosion. As a result, in 1945 the Atchafalaya’s streambed cut so deeply into the Red River, a tributary of the Mississippi, that all of the Red’s water began to flow down the Atchafalaya. By pirating the Red, the Atchafalaya became the eighth longest river in the United States. Through a similar process, the Atchafalaya eventually will capture the Mississippi itself. It would have done that by 1975 if two decades earlier Congress had not ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a dam across Old River, the connector between the rivers, freezing the prevailing water shares at one-third for the Atchafalaya and two-thirds for the Mississippi. As of the mid-seventies, the Mississippi has been rising (silting) as the Atchafalaya has been falling (eroding). Imagine, as nonfiction guru John McPhee wrote three decades ago, standing at the headwaters of the Atchafalaya and looking up three storeys at the Mississippi, the largest river in North America. Hydrologists have been sounding the alarm for much longer.
Why the danger? As the Atchafalaya erodes it threatens to undermine the Old River dams and drop a deluge into the Atchafalaya. A wall of water racing to the Gulf would scour farmlands and crush habitations—22,000 people live adjacent to the river banks.
Perhaps the event will prove less catastrophic. For 200 miles, the Mississippi lies within ten miles of the Atchafalaya drainage and occasional floods temporarily merge the rivers. When some future inundation recedes, upstream water may follow a flood-eroded channel into the Atchafalaya, preventing the Corps from stuffing the genie back into the bottle. The mortal threats are avoidable, but Corps plans perversely encourage people to return to the Lower Mississippi Valley rather than to remain where they found shelter following Hurricane Katrina.
Caution: Tectonic Plates at Play
Continental landmasses riding atop tectonic plates sometimes agglomerate into supercontinents that eons later are ripped apart. Pangaea, the most recent supercontinent, formed 300 million years ago. Seventy million years later Pangaea began to rift apart. One remnant, prehistoric North America was nearly sundered into pieces, leaving a sunken, v-shaped scar—the Mississippi Embayment (Van Arsdale and Cox 2007). A great river has subsequently buried 600 miles of the Embayment by depositing a shingled sequence of overlapping deltas. That massive relentless alluvial sedimentation is the process Congress pretends the Corps can halt.
As the river pushes its delta outward it grows flat and unstable, eventually altering course by rolling off to one side. Over time it sweeps back and forth like a garden hose, relocating the mouth by up to 170 miles. Today’s mouth extends farther into the Gulf than any predecessor— largely because of the Corps’s ultimately futile attempt to delay the move into the Atchafalaya.
Danger: Public Goods Gone Bad
Mississippi River control began when the French established a trading post in 1718 near a portage between the river and Lake Pontchartrain. Levees provided relief as long as settlement was confined to small sections of the river bank, but failed during inevitable and frequent large floods.
As settlements spread, so too did levee building. But levee building poses two dilemmas. First, settlers on the left bank are advantaged if they build higher levees than settlers on the right, and vice versa. Like the barber chairs in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, levees ratcheting upward did little more than bounce the threat back and forth. Second, although levees work for garden variety floods, failure is widespread during large floods. Confining a flood like that of 1927 within the river’s channel would require levees approximately 1,500 feet high—think Empire State Building, including the transmission tower.
In the past, the flood control burden was borne by the locals so the bad aspects were self-limiting. If competing levees could not be coordinated or if levees got too high, incremental construction costs would begin to exceed the benefit of being flood free and people would halt further investment and move away.
With the Swamp Land Act of 1849, however, Louisiana’s levee race began to tax pockets across the nation. The long-run benefit to locals no longer needed to exceed the long-run cost of the project to be undertaken; the short-run benefit merely had to be positive, cost be damned. With costs dispersed nationwide, net benefit can now be both negative and large while encouraging people to locate or remain in the extremely hazardous Lower Mississippi River Basin.
As much as those along the Mississippi’s lower reaches benefit from water flowing down that channel, others along the Atchafalaya would have benefited if the water running there had gradually increased, but as taxpayers they too were forced to share the expense of projects that keep the water out. Even more perverse, the Corps’s efforts are utterly hopeless in the long run and could create a major hazard. Whether from venality or ignorance, Congress has directed the Corps to halt a geological process that dates from the Age of Dinosaurs.
Congress cannot ration the Atchafalaya forever. Since time immemorial, the Mississippi has moved its mouth roughly once per millennium; it has been emptying through its present mouth for a thousand years. It is difficult to imagine a better warning sign. If the Corps continues to put its “finger in the dyke,” a predictable and preventable disaster will follow in the Atchafalaya Basin.
Beware: Interest Groups in Action
So why has Congress impeded the age-old cycle through which the Mississippi sweeps its lower channel? As William Shughart (2006, 34) noted, politicians work on things that have immediate and highly visible impact and shun those that solve or mitigate “dire events” that “will occur on someone else’s watch.”
McPhee suspected that the petrochemical refiners between Baton Rouge and New Orleans were benefiting from congressional decisions: the more money Congress invested in the Corps’s Old River projects, the more the gain for the refinery owners. From 1950 to 2005, refining activity increased from 200 million to 746 million barrels per year (U.S. Department of Energy: Energy Information Administration 2006). These petrochemical facilities along the Mississippi will become less valuable if the Atchafalaya is allowed to win the water fight.
But Congress should have ignored that interest group. The economic life of petrochemical capacity averages less than 18 years (Baldwin 2005). The plant along the river in 1950 could have been depreciated and rebuilt elsewhere an average of three times. Had the Corps not promised to keep Mississippi water confined to its existing channel, that capacity would now be located elsewhere.
Notice: Voters at Work
Will voters react negatively to projects that prove wasteful or even counterproductive? Probably not. Politicians eagerly claim credit when jobs roll in, then noisily blame nameless Corps employees— or even Mother Nature—when the projects go awry. Notice the blame Katrina is bearing for the damage to New Orleans. Katrina was not an unprecedented Louisiana hurricane, but Corps projects around New Orleans had severely impaired the city’s natural defenses, as even the Corps now admits.
Who, at the moment of a project’s failure, can know which politicians’ vote-trading with otherwise disinterested colleagues bears blame for decisions made long ago? How can voters punish now-retired representatives who pushed through misbegotten projects?
Government once constructed dams for flood relief, irrigation, and hydropower because it was assumed that the private sphere would undersupply them. Environmental groups now urge government to remove those dams because the private sphere will undersupply fish and wildlife habitat. Once the Corps has dammed all the promising sites, they will be able to get busy ripping the dams out.
Analogously, the Corps now asks Congress for massive funding, not to allow nature to take its natural course down the Atchafalaya or to help those displaced by Katrina find safer homes, but to “correct” the mistakes along the lower Mississippi that earlier Corps funding initiated. Whether or not those projects leave matters better or worse, they benefit any politician who can channel the resulting jobs.
One major distinction between the Corps-induced damage following Hurricane Katrina and what portends along the Atchafalaya is that for the latter the initial catastrophe remains in the future—it can still be mitigated. But will this warning save lives and allocate scarce capital correctly? The disdainful indifference of a Congress that authorizes such badly misdirected projects and the cynical fecklessness of a Corps that executes them are astounding. Taxpayers everywhere must resist congressional funding of massive, dangerously counterproductive Corps projects. More important, those in mortal risk must appreciate their peril and demand rational action.
Baldwin, John R. 2005. Death in the Industrial World: Plant Closures and Capital Retirement. Economic Analysis (EA) Research, Paper Series. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
McPhee, John. 1987. The Control of Nature: Atchafalaya. New Yorker February 13. Reprinted in 1989. The Control of Nature. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
Shughart II, William F. 2006. Katrinanomics: The Politics and Economics of Disaster Relief. Public Choice 127: 31–53.
U.S. Department of Energy: Energy Information Administration. 2006. Petroleum Profile: Louisiana. Online: tonto.eia.doe.gov/oog/info/state/la.html.
Van Arsdale, Roy B., and Randel T. Cox. 2007. The Mississippi’s Curious Origins. Scientific American. January: 76–82.
David D. Haddock is a Professor of Law and a Professor of Economics at Northwestern University. He is a senior fellow at PERC and a visiting research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.