SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Something about humanity makes us want to dig massive trenches and reroute the flow of rivers, and we’ve been doing it for a long time, too. The idea of changing the course of a waterway goes back to almost 500 B.C. when a canal longer than today’s Panama or Suez Canal was built in China.
Twenty-three hundred years after the creation of the Grand Canal in China, humanity was busy cutting off bends in Louisiana rivers to shorten the time it would take boatmen and cargo to reach New Orleans from port cities like Memphis, Natchez, and Shreveport.
By the mid-1900s, Albert Einstein’s son was in Louisiana and actively working to reroute the flow of three Louisiana rivers: the Red, the Mississippi, and the Atchafalaya. The word ecosystem was a brand-new concept as of 1935. So when the Mississippi River began changing course and it became obvious that New Orleans would cease to be a port city soon, men sprung into action. Their mission was not to study the positive and negative effects that might happen in the environment if the Mississippi River was forced to hold her course. Instead, they studied the ways and means it would take to prevent the Mississippi from moving.
It was a battle between economy and ecology, and Hans Albert Einstein was in the thick of it.
Meet Hans Albert Einstein
Hans Albert Einstein was the son of Albert Einstein, as in the Albert Einstein–the dude behind the equation E=MC2.
Al was a 24-year-old patent office clerk when Hans Albert Einstein was born in Bern, Switzerland. Hans’ mother was Mileva Maric Einstein, Albert Einstein’s first wife.
(Yep, that means Einstein had a second wife.)
Al and Mileva were married from 1903 until 1919. She was an adorable beauty and a brilliant scientist.
“You must now continue with your research—how proud I will be to have a doctor for my spouse when I’ll only be an ordinary man,” Albert wrote to Mileva in Sept. 1900 while they were dating.
Baby Hans was born on May 14, 1904, before Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity.
In 1921 Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in physics.
Hans earned his Civil Engineering degree in 1926, and Doctor of Technical Sciences in 1936, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He became a hydraulic and sanitary engineer, and Hans influenced humanity’s knowledge about the hydraulics of sedimentation.
So, what does Hans Albert Einstein have to do with the Red River in Louisiana? More than you might expect!
Hans Albert Einstein and the Red River in Louisiana
Only two rivers have bigger drainage basins than the Mississippi River: the Congo and the Amazon. And the Red River hasn’t always flowed into the Mississippi, either–in the 1400s the Red River flowed all the way down to the gulf. By the 1500s, the Mississippi River had bisected the Red River, though, and the bottom section of the Red River that led all the way to the gulf was later named “the Atchafalaya River.”
(Yes, you read that right–the Atchafalaya is, historically speaking, the Red River.)
Here’s the thing, though. When the Mississippi River bisected the Red, a strange loop was created. The Red River flowed into the Mississippi, and part of the Mississippi flowed back into the Red/Atchafalaya.
Then in 1872 the Red River bypassed the Mississippi entirely and reconnected to the Atchafalaya, which was the old Red River bed that went all the way to the gulf. It basically recreated the path it had taken in the 1400s.
By the time the 1940s arrived, mankind had made a mess of things. The rivers in the Mississippi Drainage Basin, including the Mississippi, had been drastically shortened to make the distance from port to gulf significantly shorter for boatmen and cargo. Entire bends of rivers had been cut out by men who dug trenches to reroute the waterways.
Captain Henry Miller Shreve, the namesake of Shreveport, removed a massive log jam at the beginning of the Atchafalaya/old Red River. Once the logs were removed, the water flowed faster and the Atchafalaya/old Red River began drawing water out of the Mississippi.
As years passed, the amount of water leaving the Mississippi and going down the Atchafalaya increased. Eventually, people began to realize that the Mississippi was going to change course and completely empty into the Atchafalaya, and that presented a massive economic problem.
In those days, people were much more concerned with the economy than they were with ecology.
The Mississippi River wants to be a tributary to the Red River
When the Red River stopped being a tributary of the Mississippi River, the action did not fit the narrative that the Mississippi River was/is the Father of Waters. As soon as the Red changed course, more than 65,000 square miles worth of watershed stopped flowing into the Mississippi.
Food for thought: imagine that the Mississippi became a tributary to the Atchafalaya. Because the Atchafalaya is the original channel of the Red River that emptied into the gulf, when the Red River empties into the Atchafalaya today it’s really emptying into the old Red River.
Does that mean that if the Mississippi had been allowed to become a tributary to the Red River in the 1970s, the Red River’s water basin would have become the largest water basin in North America?
Oh, the controversy.
Oh, the political and economic woes.
But the amount of sediment that would flow into the Atchafalaya River Basin would change the coastline of Louisiana.
If the Mississippi River were to become a tributary of the old Red River/Atchafalaya, and the Red River fully retook its old riverbed, the Atchafalaya, an additional 1,180,410 square miles of water basin would be added into the existing Red River drainage basin.
If the Mississippi River become a tributary to the old Red River/Atchafalaya, then Shreveport, Alexandria, Lafayette, Houma, Plaquemine, Baton Rouge, Opelousas, Simmesport, Morgan City, and old Bayou Chene would be situated in the Red River Drainage Basin–the largest drainage basin in North America. Towns and cities to include Concordia, Pointe Copuee, Avoyelles, St. Landry, St. Martin, Lafayette, Iberia, East Baton Rouge, Ascension, West Baton Rouge, Iberville, Assumption, Terrebonne, and St. Mary Parishes (all in the Atchafalaya Heritage Area) would become the official home to the waters of the Red River and her tributary, the Mississippi.
That’s a big deal.
And though it may be extremely inconvenient to even think about the course of the Mississippi River being allowed to change in the state of Louisiana so that nature can nurture the land, that is what it will take to rebuild the coast of south Louisiana.
With the Mississippi River on her current pathway, 500 million tons of sediment washes down the Mississippi River every year.
The Red River’s current watershed covers 65,590 square miles.
The Mississippi River’s current watershed covers more than 1.2 million miles.
A large percentage of Mississippi River sediment is currently before being lost over the edge of the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River’s Bird Foot Delta extends far into the Gulf of Mexico to the very edge of the continental shelf. The sediment brought from half of the states in the nation tumbles down into the depths as Louisiana keeps losing her coastline.
Captain Shreve clears jammed logs out of the Atchafalaya
But by the 1940s, people were noticing an epic battle of river currents as the Mississippi, the Red, and the Atchafalaya all struggled to gain control.
Scientists now estimate that the Mississippi River would have changed its course to the Atchafalaya by the 1970s if Hans Albert Einstein and others hadn’t gotten involved.
Einstein and others devised a plan to regulate the flow of water that the Mississippi River emptied into the old Red River/Atchafalaya. The idea was to stop the Red from completely changing course to the old Red River/Atchafalaya.
The Red River was eventually harnessed through a series of locks and dams.
The Mississippi River was also harnessed and cannot completely empty into the Atchafalaya as she wants to do.
And because of the work of Hans Albert Einstein and others, today the flows of the Mississippi, the Red, and the Atchafalaya are all controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“River-basin development has become one of the largest classes of public enterprise in the United States,” Hans Albert Einstein wrote in a Sept. 1950 paper. “The quantity of sediment transported by the stream may be changed due to deposition in reservoirs, erosion-control measures on the watershed, or revetment of the stream banks. The shape and slope of the stream may be changed by straightening, cut-offs, and jetties. Entirely new watercourses may be constructed to carry water diverted for irrigation, to provide drainage, or to create new navigable channels.”
Hans wrote there is significant economic importance in predicting future channel changes of rivers.
“For example,” he wrote, “if a large dam is constructed on an alluvial-bed river, all the bed sediment normally transported will be trapped. The clear water released will tend to erode the channel bed downstream from the dam until a new equilibrium is established. Severe bed erosion may undermine costly installations such as bridge piers, diversion structures, sewer outlets, and bank-protection works.”
Those issues, and more, are what Einstein and others had to think about when Congress authorized a massive construction project in the mid-1950s that threw $67 million at the problem.
The Bird Foot Delta
The Mississippi River changes courses every 1000 years or so, and it just so happened that the incredible river was working her way toward one of those course changes when Europeans took control of the Gulf South.
The decision to prevent the Mississippi from changing course saved the scenic beauty and the economies of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. But in that swift decision, the Mississippi River was prevented from establishing new marshes and laying down much-needed layers of sediment.
The Mississippi River doesn’t want to flow through New Orleans anymore. She wants to flow down the old Red River channel to the gulf and add land to the coastal plains that have been decimated by human influence.
Every year, the Mississippi River extends the coast of Louisiana another 300 feet and sends an unfathomable about of sediment over the edge of the continental shelf.
Louisiana has already lost almost 2,000 square miles of coastal land since the 1930s.
Hurricanes and unnatural disasters are also contributing to the coastal crisis, and the amount of land loss in Louisiana is now an issue of national importance.
What we need is another Einstein.
For more information on Louisiana’s shrinking coastlines, click here.