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How Engineers Plan to Reshape the Mississippi River Delta

Over a decade after Hurricane Katrina, designers hope to protect New Orleans from future disasters.

Katrina's anniversary provides a chance to consider how New Orleans has changed since the storm hit, and how the long process of rebuilding homes and fortifying the city's defenses has progressed. But just down the Mississippi River, the delta where the waterway meets the Gulf was hit just as hard or harder 10 years ago, suggesting the vital wetlands and marshes that protect New Orleans from the open waters of the ocean are rapidly receding (1,900 square miles have been lost in the last century). How do you re-engineer one of the largest river deltas in the world and extend its lifespan after it's been sinking in slow-motion for decades? Three international teams of top engineers just took a look at the problem as part of the Changing Course Design Competition, an effort to channel expertise from the private sector and inform government planning. Though their approaches differ, the general consensus of the three winning teams is that, instead of merely engineering our way out of the problem, which hasn't always worked in the past, we need to let the delta shrink to a more manageable size. With the state of Louisiana in the midst of enacting a long-term plan for the region, these ideas may play a role in reshaping what's called the "bird's foot delta," the buildup of sediment that stretches out into the ocean, and eventually change the outline of the state.

"Because so many interest groups and communities are involved here, from fishers and hunters to shipping and energy companies, there's a real will to act," says Stephen Cassell a co-founder of Architecture Research Office and chair of the Van Alen Institute, the group which helped facilitate this competition and research project. "We're definitely at a big crossroads."

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Photo from Getty Images.


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