Designing the Bayous: The Control of Water in the Atchafalaya Basin, 1800-1995

Designing the Bayous: The Control of Water in the Atchafalaya Basin, 1800-1995

Designing the Bayous: The Control of Water in the Atchafalaya Basin, 1800-1995

Designing the Bayous: The Control of Water in the Atchafalaya Basin, 1800-1995


Louisiana's Atchafalaya River Basin is one of the most dynamic and critical environments in the country. It sustains the nation's last cypress-tupelo wetland and provides a habitat for many species of animals. Endowed with natural gas and oil fields, the basin also supports a large commercial fisheries industry. Perhaps most crucial, it remains a primary component of the plan to control the Mississippi River and relieve flooding in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and other communities in the lower river valley.

The continuing health of the basin is a reflection not of nature, but of the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. With levee building and clearing in the nineteenth century and damming, dredging, and floodway construction in the twentieth, the basin was converted from a vast forested swamp into a designer wetland, where human aspirations and nature maintained a precarious equilibrium.

Originally published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers primarily for internal distribution, this environmental and political history of the Atchafalaya Basin is an unflinching account of the transformation of an area that has endured perhaps more human manipulation than any other natural environment in the nation. Martin Reuss provides a new preface to bring us up-to-date on the state of the basin, which remains both an engineering contrivance and natural wonder.


The first edition of this book took the story to 1995. Since that time, the tensions first outlined in Designing the Bayous have continued to influence Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, one of the most hydraulically dynamic and critical wetlands in the country, if not the world. The basin is the ancestral home of the state’s Cajun population, provides a rich source for commercial fisheries and habitat for many exotic species, is endowed with natural gas and oil fields, serves as a navigation route, and is a primary component of the plan to relieve flooding in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and communities along the lower Mississippi River. Finding the proper balance among the basin’s many competing uses tested— and continues to test—institutional and professional wisdom. Solutions may not only lead to greater stability and less debate on the basin’s development, but also may be applied to other multiple-use wetlands around the country.

Clearly problems remain. Conflicts continue between private rights and public values; government agendas still require reconciliation and modification to meet changing realities; natural resource industries, such as petroleum, timber, and fishing, press for revisions to protect their interests; recreation users call for greater access; and developers and environmentalists debate the appropriate level of human intrusion into the basin. Opinions abound about ways to improve water quality and protect flora and fauna. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers maintains a vital flood control system. In other words, the issues that raised so much rancor in the 1970s and early 1980s still exist; but less vitriol flows, more listening occurs. This, I believe, is the lasting legacy of the Atchafalaya Basin Agency Management Group (ABAMG), whose work is examined in part III of this book, and those who worked with it.

Since the late 1980s, the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers has acquired about 47,000 acres of fee lands for public access and has negotiated the acquisition of approximately 150,000 acres of easement land. The easements include nearly all the area between U.S. Highway 190 and I-10. Public access lands lie in three areas. The Corps purchased high-quality cypress and tupelo swamps from willing sellers, who possessed large land holdings. These areas include land in Pointe Coupee, Iberville, St. Martin, and St. Landry parishes. Some of the land borders the Atchafalaya Basin Natural Wildlife Refuge and the Attakapas . . .

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