Disturbances in the Delta: Understanding New Orleans’ Geology
By Gerry Van Kooten

Numerous processes contribute to New Orleans’ perilous geologic situation. The city, and much of southern Louisiana, is located on the Mississippi River delta. The delta has been built over many thousands of years by sediment carried in suspension to the mouth of the river and dumped as the river flow slows and enters the Gulf of Mexico. The floodwater-deposited sediments, upon which New Orleans is built, naturally compact and settle over time. The Mississippi River currently carries a reduced sediment load due to numerous dams and flood-control projects, thereby limiting the sediment replenishment in the delta.

Along the river margin, levees channel water and sediment away from the sinking marshlands, and the coastline becomes starved for sand. As a result, wetlands and marshes are disappearing and the natural buffer against storms and hurricanes is lost. Proposed solutions to these issues involve returning river water flows and sediment to wetlands, rebuilding barrier islands and bars, and constructing floodgates where needed.

Sediment Supply and Demand
Sediment from the North American heartland is carried down the Mississippi River and deposited in the large Mississippi delta at the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi/Missouri is the third-longest river in the world and sixth-largest in terms of water discharge. With a combined length of over 3,800 miles, the Mississippi-Missouri system drains parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces.

While the Mississippi still carries large sediment loads, the amount of sediment today is only about 40 percent of the sediment load compared to a few hundred years ago. Dams and flood control structures create obstructions that trap sediment and reduce the river’s sediment load. Twenty-seven dams and locks exist on the Mississippi between New Orleans and Minneapolis, and exist primarily to enhance shipping. Other dams and large reservoirs are present on tributaries, particularly the Missouri. Each large reservoir allows suspended sediment to settle and remain in the reservoir instead of proceeding downstream. In the delta, the reduced sediment supply cannot fully replenish a delta built and dependent on a higher volume of sediment influx.

Sinking City
The news footage of New Orleans shows mud and silt everywhere when the floodwaters recede. This is the natural fate of river sediment during flood events. The muddy and silty sediment is at first very high in water content, but begins to slowly lose water and compact over time. This process continues in the subsurface as sediment builds vertically. The initial sediments often have water contents between 40 percent to 80 percent. As water is lost, sediment compaction proceeds, and final sediment volume may be half or less compared to original volumes.

This natural compaction process causes the delta sediments to settle and sink, with New Orleans sinking along with it. While the site of New Orleans was above sea level when it was first settled, much of New Orleans is now below sea level. From the age of the city of New Orleans, we can guess that this settling amounts to something like one foot every 10 or 20 years. The settling is not reversible, and normally would be halted by renewed sediment deposition in the lowest areas. However, annual flooding and sediment replenishment are obviously not compatible with a stable, vibrant city.

Levees and Lobes
New Orleans, and much of southern Louisiana, does not receive sediment replenishment because levees constrain the water to canals and existing river channels. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began levee construction in 1879 and continued in earnest after severe flooding in the early 1900s. In the past, the Mississippi River would build a delta of mud and sand where river water slowed as it entered the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico. The buildup of sediment in the delta, and the concurrent sinking of adjacent areas, would cause the Mississippi River to abandon its channel and break out into an adjacent low area. This “lobe switching” has built six to 10 major delta lobes in the past 7,000 years as the river moves back and forth across the delta. The levee system now prevents this movement.

Additionally, the current main channel ends very near the edge of the continental shelf, and water depths increase rapidly offshore. Sediment dumped at the current channel mouth goes over the continental margin and is lost to near-shore marginal environments. This is especially apparent in offshore barrier islands and bars that serve to protect the coast from storms. The barrier islands are starved for sand and are shrinking in size.

Vanishing Wetlands
Additional wetlands are lost through activities associated with the oil and gas industry. Canals are dug for oil and gas access and pipeline routes, and allow saltwater incursion into freshwater wetlands, thereby killing the vegetation. Boat traffic along these canals also promotes bank erosion.

Geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey have recently suggested that withdrawal of oil and gas fluids from the subsurface has also contributed to surface settling. Withdrawal of fluids depressurizes the subsurface, which may allow surface settling. In an analogous way, withdrawal of groundwater in other areas often results in well-documented surface subsidence.

The area of Louisiana wetlands naturally disappearing in this way is about 30 square miles per year and possibly 1,900 square miles so far. The rate of wetlands loss does not seem to be slowing, and if action is not taken, the loss will probably continue at this rate. The wetlands form a critical buffer between the settled coastline and the Gulf of Mexico, and besides providing rich wildlife habitat, have the ability to absorb and moderate storm impacts. Three to four miles of wetlands are able to absorb about one foot of storm surge. Wetlands provide water storage areas and the vegetation absorbs wave energy. Some wetlands after storms are rumpled like a floor rug, thereby showing how much energy they can absorb.

Restoration Recommendations
In 1998, a large group of state, federal and local agencies published Coast 2050 as a blueprint for restoring coastal Louisiana. The report prioritized projects that were thought to restore wetlands and return natural sedimentation processes to the delta and coast.

The first recommendation was to divert Mississippi River water and sediment into sinking marshland through new channels cut into the south side of the constraining levee system. Dredging was suggested to rebuild and restore the offshore barrier islands. Dredging the current mouth of the river was to be abandoned to allow the current channel to fill with sediment and promote lobe switching. It was suggested a new shipping channel be built farther inland and the current shipping channel be closed. And lastly, the report recommended building a gating system to control seawater access to Lake Pontchartrain.

Pilot projects under way show that some of these suggestions are working; some others have been successfully implemented overseas. The cost of all the suggested projects was $14 billion, a figure that now looks like a bargain.

Gerry Van KootenGerry Van Kooten is professor of geology and teaches the “hard rock” subjects of mineralogy and petrology, structure, and geochemistry. He conducts research on energy resources, mercury in the environment and ammonite fossils from Alaska. He came to Calvin in 2002 and held the Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar chair. Before Calvin, he worked for more than 20 years as an exploration geologist in geothermal and oil and gas resources both for Atlantic Richfield Company and as an independent consultant. An expert on the geology of Alaska, Van Kooten regularly gives papers and presentations on the oil and gas potential of Alaska and the environmental impact of exploration on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.