The Mississippi River, the longest in North America, is really two rivers geophysically. The volume is less, the slope steeper, the velocity greater, and the channel straighter in its upper portion than in its lower portion. Below the mouth of the Ohio River, the Mississippi meanders through a continental depression that it has slowly filled with sediment over many millennia. Some limnologists and hydrologists consider the transitional middle portion of the Mississippi, where the waters of its two greatest tributaries, the Missouri and Ohio rivers, join it, to comprise a third river, in terms of its behavioral patterns and stream and floodplain ecologies.
The Mississippi River humans have known, with its two or three distinct sections, is a relatively recent formation. The lower Mississippi only settled into its current formation following the last ice age and the dissipation of water released by receding glaciers. Much of the current river delta is newer still, having taken shape over the last three to five hundred years.
Within the lower section of the Mississippi are two subsections, the meander zone and the delta. Below Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the river passes through Crowley’s Ridge and enters the wide and flat alluvial plain. Here the river meanders in great loops, often doubling back on itself, forming cut offs that, if abandoned by the river, forming lakes. Until modern times, most of the plain, approximately 35,000 square miles, comprised a vast and rich—rich in terms of biomass production—ecological wetland sustained by annual Mississippi River floods that brought not just water, but fertile sediment—topsoil—gathered from across much of the continent. People thrived in the Mississippi River meander zone. Some of the most sophisticated indigenous cultures of North America emerged here. Between Natchez, Mississippi, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Old River Control, the Mississippi begins to fork into distributary channels, the largest of which is the Atchafalaya River. The Mississippi River delta begins here, formed of river sediment accrued upon the continental shelf. In the delta the land is wetter, the ground water table is shallower. Closer to the sea, the water becomes brackish and patterns of river sediment distribution are shaped by ocean tides and waves. The delta is frequently buffeted by hurricanes.
Over the last century and a half people have transformed the lower Mississippi River, principally through the construction of levees and drainage canals that have effectively disconnected the river from the floodplain. The intention has been to dry the land adjacent to the river, to make it useful for agriculture and urban development. However, an unintended effect of flood control and wetland drainage has been to interfere with the flood-pulse process that sustained the lower valley ecology, and with the process of sediment distribution that built the delta and much of the Louisiana coastline. The seriousness of the delta’s deterioration has become especially apparent since Hurricane Katrina, and has moved conservation groups to action. They are pushing politicians and engineers to reconsider their approach to Mississippi River management.