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Designing the Bayous

The Control of Water in the Atchafalaya Basin, 1800-1995

By Martin Reuss

Publication Year: 2004

Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin is one of the most dynamic and critical environments in the country. It sustains the nation’s last cypress-tupelo wetland and provides a habitat for many species of animals. Endowed with natural gas and oil fields, the basin also supports a large commercial fisheries industry. Perhaps most crucial, it remains a primary component of the plan to control the Mississippi River and relieve flooding in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and other communities in the lower river valley. The continuing health of the basin is a reflection not of nature, but of the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. With levee building and clearing in the nineteenth century and damming, dredging, and floodway construction in the twentieth, the basin was converted from a vast forested swamp into a designer wetland, where human aspirations and nature maintained a precarious equilibrium. Originally published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers primarily for internal distribution, this environmental and political history of the Atchafalaya Basin is an unflinching account of the transformation of an area that has endured perhaps more human manipulation than any other natural environment in the nation. Martin Reuss provides a new preface to bring us up-to-date on the state of the basin, which remains both an engineering contrivance and natural wonder.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Gulf Coast Books Series

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Preface to Texas A&M Edition

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pp. vii-x

THE FIRST EDITION of this book took the story to 1995. Since that time, the tensions first outlined in Designing the Bayous have continued to influence Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, one of the most hydraulically dynamic and critical...

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pp. xi-xiv

AS A HISTORIAN for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, I have had an unusual opportunity to learn something of the Corps’ culture, the frustrations and rewards of the engineering profession, and the peculiar challenges facing bureaucrats in the public sector. At the same time, I have often sympathized with many of the environmental concerns raised in the last twenty years...


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pp. xv-xviii

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pp. 3-14

ABOUT 20 MILES our OF BATON ROUGE on 1-10, past Grosse Tete and Ramah, and just past the sign "Atchafalaya Swamp Floodway," the road unexpectedly rises and the highway perches on stilts. For 17.5 miles this "Swamp Expressway" straddles swampland...

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Chapter 1. Early Flood Control Efforts, Louisiana Style

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pp. 17-48

THEATCHAFALAYABASINHASALWAYS BEEN a source of controversy. Nothing about it-not even its name-has led to easy agreement. Thomas Hutchins, the "Geographer to the United States" after the Revolutionary War, called the river the "Chafalaya" and thought the land through which it flowed "one of the most fertile countries in the world."1...

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Chapter 2. Interregnum: Growing Federal Involvement

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pp. 49-70

THE PERIOD FROM JUST BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR to the early 1880s may be considered an interregnum in the story of the Atchafalaya Basin. Devastated by the Civil War and reconstruction, Louisiana attempted to reconstruct levees and remove navigation...

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Chapter 3. The Outlet Question

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pp. 71-102

OFTEN THE SIMPLEST QUESTION provokes the most complicated answer: should engineers disperse flood waters or confine them? As cities rose along the Mississippi River, as farms were developed and forests cleared, the question increasingly took on emotional overtones. In Louisiana, riparian landowners and merchants who depended on river transportation sought...

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Chapter 4. Apres Le Deluge: The Jadwin Plan

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pp. 103-136

THE FLOODING THAT ENDED the MRC's dependence on levees occurred in 1927. One of the nation's worst peacetime disasters killed between 250 and 500 people, flooded over 16 million acres, and destroyed 41,000 buildings. The Red Cross at one time cared for over 600,000 people, half of whom lived in temporary...

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Chapter 5 .The Politics of Engineering

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pp. 137-172

THE TIMES CALLED FOR POLITICAL ADJUSTMENT, and no part of government went untouched. One might have predicted that the Corps' fortunes would rise in the administration of a President who was a former engineer. Engineers, Hoover had said, "comprise a force in the community absolutely unique...

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Chapter 6. Louisiana and Mississippi: The Battle over Floodways

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pp. 173-206

THROUGHOur ROOSEVELT'S NEW DEAL administration, John Overton and Will Whittington dominated federal legislation affecting the lower Mississippi River. They were instrumental in formulating their states' positions on flood control...

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Chapter 7. The Old River Problem

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pp. 207-248

By THE END OF 1941, contours of the modern Atchafalaya Basin floodway system had emerged. Although the Morganza Floodway intake structure was not yet in place and some gaps remained in the levee system, most of the guide levees had been built, as had the levees along the banks of the Atchafalaya River...

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Chapter 8. Let the Public Be Heard: Reconciling Multiple Objectives

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pp. 249-272

JUST AS THE CORPS COMPLETED the Old River Control Structure project in 1963, it advanced plans for further engineering of the Atchafalaya Basin. These plans responded to problems that had already become apparent in the mid-1950s. The levees continuously subsided because of swampy land underneath them...

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Chapter 9. Environmental Activist and the Corps of Engineers

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pp. 273-290

WHENPRESIDENfNIXON SIGNED the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on the first day of the new year, 1970, he changed dramatically the way in which federal agencies plan public works projects. The act declared that it was the "continuing policy of the Federal Government...to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive...

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Chapter 10. Defending the Turf

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pp. 291-322

MOST CANOEISTS PADDLING in the Atchafalaya Basin's bayous probably paid little attention to the acrimonious debates dividing the Atchafalaya Basin Agency Management Group. Their vision was simpler. For them, the basin was a commingling of flora and fauna, water and land, unlike anywhere else...

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Chapter 11. Denouement

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pp. 323-354

DESPITE ITS BEST EFFORTS, the Corps floundered when it attempted to forge a consensus on the future of the Atchafalaya Basin. Many people continued to doubt the agency's environmental sensitivity, while others saw the Corps sacrificing its commitment to a critical flood control project. At times developing agreements on even the most routine matters seemed beyond reach...

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Afterword: A Sense of Place, A Sense of Balance

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pp. 355-360

THE ATCHAFALAYA BASIN has essentially become a "designer wedand," a monument to human contrivance and ingenuity. Like so many other places in the world-European woodlands, California's Central Valley, refurbished beaches along the Atlantic Coast, or the manicured English landscape...


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pp. 361-424


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pp. 425-452

Illustration Credits

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pp. 453-456


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pp. 457-474

E-ISBN-13: 9781603446327
E-ISBN-10: 160344632X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781585443758
Print-ISBN-10: 1585443751

Page Count: 496
Illustrations: 73 b&w photos. 23 maps.
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: Gulf Coast Books Series

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Subject Headings

  • Water resources development -- Louisiana -- Atchafalaya River Watershed -- History.
  • Water resources development -- Social aspects -- Louisiana -- Atchafalaya River Watershed -- History.
  • Water resources development -- Government policy -- Louisiana -- Atchafalaya River Watershed -- History.
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