Rivers & Flood Control
Water is an abundant natural resource in Louisiana that has the power to both shape life and take it away. Throughout the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area it has carved vast terraces and riverbeds, swamps and marshes. It has nourished plants and given animals habitats where they can thrive. It has been the lifeblood of communities and coastlines and then swallowed them whole. This intriguing water story is thousands of years in the making.
Did you know...
- The Mississippi River, the largest river in the U.S., flows through the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area on its way to meet the Gulf of Mexico. This powerful waterway twists and turns as it carves its way through the landscape. The river has changed course many times, gradually building land with rich sediment deposits on its unending quest to find the quickest route to the Gulf. It currently strives to flow down the path of the Atchafalaya River, but massive structures (built by man half a century ago at a place called Old River) work around the clock in an ambitious system designed to control Mother Nature by keeping the Mississippi on its present path.
- There was once a Red River logjam so thick that, at one point, it stretched for more than 150 miles. This massive blockage was cleared in the 1800s by Captain Henry Shreve and triggered a series of events that inadvertently reshaped the geology of the Lower Mississippi River watershed.
- During the 1700s-1800s, levees along the Mississippi River were privately owned and maintained, often in a patchwork effort to keep annual floods at bay. The widespread devastation of the Flood of 1927 marked a turning point in how flood control is managed in the U.S., however, resulting in the Flood Control Act of 1928, which authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to design and construct projects to prevent a repeat disaster.
- The Atchafalaya Basin and region is among the most culturally rich and ecologically varied regions in the United States. At one time the only way to cross this vast wilderness was by water. In the early 1900s, a railroad was built through the swamp to bridge the area between Lafayette and Baton Rouge. The Flood of 1927 destroyed this connection, and its replacement—an ~18-mile interstate bridge—was not constructed until the 1970s. Today, a few remnant boards from the original railroad track are still visible through the scattered trees of Henderson Swamp.
- The Chitimacha Tribe settled along the lower Bayou Teche in approximately 500 A.D. and built permanent villages using trees, rivercane stalks and palmetto leaves native to the area. They used the bayou as a major trade network and traveled throughout the region as the seasons and water levels changed. Today the Chitimacha still live on a portion of their aboriginal land. They have maintained distinct customs and are well-known for their intricate basket-weaving tradition.
- Pioneering communities like Bayou Chene once sprouted in the Atchafalaya Basin region. Because of their extreme isolation, residents relied on local resources and one another for survival. But after the Basin was designated an official floodway and levees were constructed around it in the 1930s, regular floods increased, making life here even more difficult. Eventually, inhabitants abandoned the settlements for higher ground. Today these areas within the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System are often buried under feet of sediment, water or sometimes both.
- Bayou Plaquemine once served as an important inland gateway to the heart of Louisiana through the Atchafalaya Basin. But once permanent human settlements lined the bayou, annual flooding became a major problem. Waterways like Bayou Plaquemine and Bayou Lafourche were eventually cut off from the Mississippi River by man-made levees constructed to prevent floods along bayou banks. Today, a fresh flow from the river is restored to bayous like these via massive pumping systems that carry water from one side of the levee to the other.
- Bayou Teche was once an ancient channel of the Mississippi River and a bustling regional highway during the steamboat era. Civil War battles were fought along its banks and boats sunk beneath its surface. Today this slow-moving waterway is a paddler’s dream, a National Water Trail full of history, culture and serene landscapes.
- Thousand-year-old cypress trees once filled our region’s landscape. So many of these old-growth trees were logged in the late 1800s and early 1900s that the trees we see today are almost all new-growth. But along with the scars of skidder canals from the logging era, a few old-growth trees remain—you can find them if you know where to look.
- At one time people saw swamps mostly for the natural resources they could provide, including food, lumber, oil and Spanish moss. Today, swamps are still valued for their resources, but they are also recognized as important components in flood control and naturally filtering sediment and pollutants from surrounding areas. In addition, these beautiful and mysterious landscapes serve as habitats for a variety of flora and fauna.
Learn more about our water story by exploring the Atchafalaya Water Heritage Trail.