— [Chris] If I pick up a handful of dirt in the Mississippi Delta, what am I looking at? [Chris Paola, University of Minnesota] You’re looking at a mixture of the whole middle of America. From the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide over to the Appalachians and up to the Canadian border. — [Denise] One of the important things to understand about the Mississippi river Delta is it’s made of the rest of the continent. Little grains of sand and mud and dirt come from fields in Iowa or Wisconsin or other places like that. And they get into the rivers. And they gradually make their way down the river, into a bigger river, into a bigger river, into the Mississippi. [Denise Reed, University of New Orleans] Eventually they get transported down to the Gulf of Mexico. When the fast flowing river hits the Gulf of Mexico, that sediment just drops out. That’s what builds the Delta. This is a dynamic process of ebb and flow, growth and decay, carrying on over time. Eventually though, they balance out, and we manage to get the coast of Louisiana just emerging out of the Gulf of Mexico. Made up of all these Delta lobes. — [John] The Mississippi Delta is one of the richest wetland communities on planet earth. [John Fitzpatrick, Cornell Lab of Ornithology] Fed by half a continent’s worth of nutrients, that are coming down the river, and spread out there across these different habitats. The total biomass, just the amount of living organisms, that is in there in the water, is beyond imagination. You can see that, because some of these breeding colonies of birds have thousands and thousands of breeding pairs. That huge community, is telling us that the delta itself, the marsh systems out there are teeming with life. — [Melanie] What looks like just marsh to the untrained eye, is actually entirely separate ecosystems that interact and that support a tremendous amount of life. [Melanie Driscoll, Audubon] It’s just a very rich, productive system that supports up to forty percent of the nation’s waterfowl during the winter and supports forty percent or so of the nation’s raptors, shorebirds, and waterfowl, during migration. — [Chris] This really is a region of the United States that is unique on the planet in its diversity, in its importance, both to the natural systems out there and to the humans that live in the region. — [James] Nature can be thought of as a factory. [James Boyd, Resources for the Future] It produces goods that we use, food that we eat, the air that we breathe, the water we drink. You can think of the delta as, this particularly valuable and productive factory. — [Melanie] Thirty percent or so of the seafood for the United States, comes from these Mississippi river built marshes. — [James] You can think of the Mississippi system as a funnel through which a huge percentage of our national trade flows. Trade, of course, doesn’t just flow down through the delta. Our economy’s dependent on products and imputes we’re importing that flow up through the delta. [Ecosystem Services, $12-47 billion/year- Earth Economics, Gaining Ground, 2010] When you try to put an economic value on the Mississippi Delta, you get a number between twelve and forty-seven billion dollars a year. [Levee-Controlled River System] — [Robert] We shut off the outlets that fueled sediment into the streams, [Robert Twilley, University of Louisiana at Lafayette] that nourished the wetland landscape. [Land loss 1956-2006] — [Steve] 2,300 square miles since the 1930’s has gone from continuous marsh to open water. [Steve Mathies, LA Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration] That is an area, roughly the size of Delaware. We lose, it’s been estimated about a football field, every forty-five minutes. So we can tell you were going to lose 24 square miles this year. The reason why New Orleans was able to withstand hurricanes in the past was that we had 20, 30, 40 miles of continuous marsh. Solid land between the city of New Orleans and Gulf of Mexico. And that land would absorb a lot of the hurricane surge. — [Denise] We have to, kind of, do this balancing act between getting those natural processes that can build us land going again and providing the kind of flood protection and ability to navigate that we really need in this country. — [Steve] We’re going to rely on the Mississippi River to be managed differently than it is today. Today it’s managed primarily for flood control, navigation, we need to manage the Mississippi river as a total asset. — [Denise] Now we have to think about what we want the next 50 to 100 years to be like. And then think about how we can take actions that steer it in that direction. Not steer it backwards. Steer it in a new direction, forwards.

End of transcript

Teeming with life and supporting massive breeding bird colonies, the Mississippi River Delta is built from the nutrients collected from half a continent. One of the richest wetlands in the world, the delta delivers over 12 billion dollars per year in ecosystem services. But as levee systems are built that block sediment from flowing through the delta we are losing marshland at an estimated rate of a football field every 45 minutes. In this video, scientists and resource managers speak about balancing the need to manage the Delta for flood control and navigation with the need to maintain a healthy Delta ecosystem.