There was no emotion on 67-year-old Paul Watson’s face as he tacked the “FOR SALE BY OWNER” sign on his flood-ravaged home in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.

Victimized by Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, Watson and other longtime residents here admit they’ve given up on rebuilding in this low-lying neighborhood bordered by the powerful waters of Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi River.

The reasons are understandable: Too much reliance on man-made structures that might collapse again in the next big storm; the forces of nature are just too risky. Yet that’s been the fate of New Orleans ever since early settlers began changing the natural course of the Mississippi River with earthen dikes to protect homes and farms from flooding.

The federal government got involved in flood control in the late 19th century, and since then it has further diverted the river with a system of spillways, jetties, levees, canals, dams, reservoirs and pumping plants.

The river’s course also was changed to allow ocean-going freighters to dock at ports in south Louisiana in order to transfer cargo to and from river barges.

Now the Mississippi flows in a tight corridor outside its original channel, with the mouth of the river running deep into the Gulf of Mexico instead of spilling along the coastline. Environmentalists said this means the 400 tons of mud and silt the river collects every year from its journey through 10 states ends up at the bottom of the Gulf and not as sediment deposits needed to sustain the shallow coastal wetlands of Louisiana.

The amount of so-called alluvial material is so enormous because the Mississippi River is the third largest watershed in the world, with rivers and streams from 41 percent of the continental United States draining into it. Only the Amazon River Basin in South America and the Congo River Basin in Africa are larger.

Before the system of levees and dams altered the river’s course near the mouth, it built up thousands of acres of coastal wetlands in Louisiana. But environmental experts estimate that Louisiana has lost more than 1,100 square miles of wetlands along its coast in the past half-century due to the river’s unnatural course, and that between 25 and 35 square miles — an area the size of Manhattan in New York City — disappears every year.

This large loss of wetlands, the experts say, is a serious threat to shrimp, crabs, oysters and fish, and to migratory birds and 400 forms of wildlife that rely on the Mississippi River Delta habitat.

But it is also a danger sign for the nation’s petroleum industry. Twenty-five percent of our natural gas production comes from coastal Louisiana, and 18 percent of U.S. oil production, according to federal records.

“As wetlands and barrier islands disappear, the wells, pipelines, ports and roads that make the oil and natural gas industry possible will be exposed to open water conditions,” warns the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. “These facilities will need to be replaced at a high cost, and the potential for damaging oil spills will increase.”

Denise Reed, a geology professor at the University of New Orleans, put the importance of the Mississippi’s mud to Louisiana’s coast in historic perspective. She said 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, the New Orleans area was likely open water and that mud from the river eventually created the land on which the city now rests.

“The connection between the coast of Louisiana and the river is just absolutely tight,” she said. “The river built the land very, very recently. We don’t have any geology here, really. It’s only a few thousand years old.”

Reed is one of the scientific experts looking for ways to balance the Mississippi River’s commercial shipping value with the coastal environmental and ecological needs. Somehow, she said, the Mississippi has to be taken out of its “straight jacket” and allowed to deposit mud and silt in shallow coastal waters again.

Reed used the Superdome in New Orleans to make her point. She said the river’s annual sediment deposits would fill the well-known stadium to the roof 11 times. Accumulated over time, she added, this amounts to about 1,000 square miles of land that was lost to the Gulf during the 20th Century.

“This is land that was great habitat for waterfowl - the same waterfowl that you see up in Minnesota at some times of the year are down here at other times of the year, particularly in winter,” she said. “It was great habitat for shrimp, blue crabs, all kinds of fisheries. Thirty percent of the fishery landings in the country are largely dependent on these wetlands. That’s where the crabs grow up. That’s where the oysters grow — in these shallow open water bodies.”

Clint Guidry, a shrimper from Venice, La., south of New Orleans, is counting on government stopping the erosion of the Louisiana coast. He said the livelihood of the people in the small towns and bayous south of the city is directly tied to the marsh land. “We need the silt,” said Guidry. “The land has sunk three feet around here in the last three years. If something doesn’t happen, we’ll be fishing shrimp in Arkansas.”

Getting the mud from the Mississippi to the Louisiana coast isn’t a new movement. A 1998 state report entitled “Coast 2050” recommended that Louisiana’s wetlands be refurbished naturally by capturing sediment flowing down the river.

But the report dodged the question of how also to protect the city of New Orleans. Reed, one of the report’s authors, said the action plan was “never really embraced … we kept saying we were going to study it. Nothing happened.”

Until hurricanes Katrina and Rita occurred. Then, in April of last year, Reed and other Louisiana officials invited a group of wetland scientists from throughout the world to study the navigational as well as environmental ramifications of the Mississippi River’s course.

“This was a time when we really had to get it right,” Reed said. “The impact of Katrina in New Orleans and surrounding areas has been so dramatic that this was a time to rethink what the future might be like.”

Reed said the experts concluded that there’s hope for the Louisiana coast – if a new water-control system were built to stop wasting the Mississippi’s vast supply of silt and mud. Furthermore, she said, they determined the new system could be built without risking the future of New Orleans or the ocean-going vessels vital to commercial shipping on the Mississippi, although the deep-water ports between Baton Rouge and New Orleans would need to shut down.

“These things aren’t fundamentally incompatible,” said Reed. “But it’s not immediately obvious how to get them together” without spending billions of dollars.”

A similar dilemma confronts the Upper Mississippi, which features a system of 29 locks and dams. They are needed to allow cargo-carrying barges to move through the river’s shallow waters in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Environmentalists said the locks and dams — like the levees in Louisiana — alter the river’s natural course, robbing the backwaters and side channels of friendly habitat for fish and wildlife. The result, they contend, is a river in ecological decline.

Even so, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been urged to update the lock and dam system. Flooded lock chambers that move the barges through the river’s low points are not long enough to handle the usual string of barges under tow. This causes costly shipping backups and delays.

There are no easy answers. But Congress has instructed the Corps of Engineers to come up with suggestions by figuring the difference between the river’s transportation value and its merit as a natural resource.

That’s the kind of tough assignment that pits economic interests against Mother Nature — and the type of conflict that has long burdened the Mighty Mississippi.

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