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Could Obama Really Move the Mississippi to Save Gulf Wetlands?

No man can move mountains, but our President just might move the nation's largest river.

File under: whoa.

The Beltway-connected historian Douglas Brinkley dropped something of a bombshell talking to Anderson Cooper about the administration's response to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Brinkley suggests that on top of the short-term fixes—actually stopping the gusher and cleaning up the oil—the administration is planning a massive "Gulf Recovery Act" that would involve actually redirecting the Mississippi River in order to restore coastal wetlands, and sending the bill to BP. Brinkley says this could run as high as $20 billion, since it basically involves pulling the river out of the concrete channels that it's been funneled through for years now and flooding it back out through all of the degraded coastal areas it once ran through, regenerating wetlands and forming new barrier islands that have eroded over the decades as the flow of sediment stopped.

That would all be a heck of a big deal. A massive public works project on the scale of the Tennessee Valley Authority (which, long before it was flooding Tennessee towns with coal ash, was actually providing incredible public service and employment to the poor region), the endeavor, Brinkley assures Cooper, is more than a personal pipedream. In fact, Brinkley has the ears of administration insiders. Even James Carville, who's been crushing the president lately for his weak response, is blown away by the prospect. Here's the video, courtesy of CrooksandLiars:


Also, Annie Lowrie at Washington Insider cleaned up the transcript some:

RINKLEY: There are three things…going on. One is close that well…capture as much oil as you can, keep the pressure on BP on the relief wells. Second is immediate cleanup. And I think more can be done by the Obama administration…But I think the big third piece is coming, when President Obama comes to Florida and Alabama and Mississippi, and that is holding BP responsible for the Natural Resource Damage Act, for the Oil Spill Response Act. And, by that, I mean BP is going to end up paying somewhere from $10 billion to $15 billion, maybe even $20 billion, because they’re going — one of the only ways to save the Louisiana wetlands is going to be — you know, the Mississippi River has been channelized for navigation.

Well, now the Mississippi River has to be redirected. It’s going to have to be flooded and sediment pumped into these marshlands to save it. I think the Obama administration…


COOPER: So, no, wait. No, wait. Doug, is this just a hope on your part?


COOPER: Or — I mean, I know you have been talking to sources. Do you believe this is actually going to happen?

BRINKLEY: Yes. Yes. It’s one of the reasons why the president is not talking to Tony Hayward. And they are going to come out with a large Gulf recovery act, because the oil and gas industry has been dredging. We have disappearing barrier islands. For 40 years down there, it’s abused the wetlands.

This is a turning point. There is an appetite on Capitol Hill for Gulf recovery act. The Mississippi River is going to have to be redirected into the marshlands. And BP and Transocean and other, you know, operations, Cameron, other companies are going to have to pay up to $10 billion and $15 billion for breaking national acts.

In addition, for offshore drilling in the Gulf, Anderson, there will be a conservation excise tax that, yes, there will be offshore drilling, but Louisianians will start getting some of the revenue to stay in state.


Congress is going to go after BP, and they have now broken, as I said, National Resource Damage Act, Oil Spill Response Act. And in order to save the wetlands, which BP is responsible to, it’s going to be — the Army Corps of Engineers has directed — if you fly over, it’s like a bird’s foot. There are three channels.

We’re now going to have to redirect Mississippi River sediment and flood the marshlands to try to save them. That will occur after this — the well gets capped, the relief wells are built. But, in the next year or two, this will be, for President Obama administration, I think something of a Tennessee Valley Authority or a Saint Lawrence Seaway under Dwight Eisenhower, a major public works act.


It's hard to overstate how massive an undertaking this would be, and it would pretty much slam the door on any "Is Obama doing enough for the Gulf" criticism. Though there's been curious little reaction to Brinkley's statement, so I'm in very cautious "believe it when there's a White House press release" mode.

Now I've been talking to lots and lots of urban planners and environmentalists in the area lately for a piece about climate adaptation and resiliency for our upcoming New Orleans issue. Everyone, withouth exception, speaks of wetlands restoration with wistful resignation. They consider it some pie-in-the-sky scenario that will never, ever happen, as there's no local authority that has the strength or resolve to stand up to private interests and make it happen. It almost certainly would take the White House pull off what the local agencies couldn't possibly. Let's hope the White House will.

Photo by NASA

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