Monday, June 18, 2018

When The Waterways Were Open…

A Free-flowing Atchafalaya River Basin System 

Little Bayou Pigeon 1936 ...What have they done to our waterways ?


Atchafalaya River & Flood  plain –  slightly south I 10
Atchafalaya National Heritage  Area Slide  Show

The Atchafalaya River begins near Simmesport, LA. in an area known as the Three Rivers Area, i.e., this is where the Mississippi, Red, and Atchafalaya all come together, southward down to Morgan City and the Gulf of Mexico. 

The Atchafalaya River and its surrounding flood plain / basin are a unique combination of wetlands, bayous, marshes, estuaries, and river delta area. Best known for its iconic cypress-tupelo swamps, at 260,000 acres this block of forest represents the largest remaining contiguous tract of coastal cypress in the US. 

It is sometimes referred to as “America’s Foreign Country", as it covers an area 20 miles wide and 150 miles long. It is designated a National Heritage Area, and is viewed by many as a National Treasure.

In 1812,  President Thomas Jefferson sent Captain Amos Stoddard to explore the Louisiana coastal plain, including the Atchafalaya Basin. He was one of the first to describe the strings of lakes and bayous that laced together the Atchafalaya Swamp, which divided the “Delta from what is called the elevated country. The Chafalia affords a beautiful sheet of water, at least as far down as Cow Island, from seventy-five, to one hundred and fifty yards wide, and from twenty-five to thirty feet deep in the dry seasons. At Cow Island, the stream is divided; one part spreads into a large lake; the other part continues its course, and seems to maintain its usual breadth and depth. The current of the Chafalia is gentle until  it is joined by the Plaquamines about one hundred fifty miles from the outlet on the Mississippi, which its velocity is considerably increased. It communicates with Lake Natchez by means of several bayous, the largest of which is Bayou Long. This bayou is connected with Lake Flat, Grand River, and Grand Lake, by means of several bayous, most of which are navigable in the season of high water. Grand Lake is about forty miles long, and from three to ten miles wide, into which the Chafalia is emptied by a channel of about two hundred fifty yards wide; and a depth of nearly forty feet. It then passes through Berwick bay, which is from half a mile to two miles wide, and from sixty to eighty feet deep; and after a course of about twelve miles, it falls into Vermillion Bay, which is an arm of the gulf.”– Captain Amos Stoddard

I've always been fascinated by knowing / understanding the paths / routes that waterways take in the Atchafalaya Basin.

When I was growing up at Bayou Pigeon, LA., it was essential for the indigenous swamper / commercial fisherman to get around in the basin with speed and accuracy. Every good Atchafalaya Basin commercial fisherman / hunter I have ever known knows the basin waterways like their own house. They understand that knowing current flow and water depth are critical to good catches.

Waterways are/were the fisherman’s highways; they are the ways the commercial fishermen gets to his ‘work’ (his place of employment). One of the first things the commercial fishermen teaches their sons is the back ways and shortcuts to the best fishing / hunting spots in day or night.

Being in the basin at night is completely different than being there during daylight.  I can recall in my younger years being so turned around on the waterways at night that I would have to throw my hat in the air to see which way was down.

My latest book, ‘Heritage of the Atchafalaya, A Natural and Cultural History of the Atchafalaya Basin’, was already published  when I realized there was an important chapter that I missed, i.e.,  the history of the waterways before the Atchafalaya  Floodway levees, access canals, and pipeline canals were  constructed, “When the Waterways Were Open’.

I cannot believe I did not think to include that...especially since it is part of our Cajun heritage to be good, at direction in the woods!

Goal and Objectives for This Writing

My objective is to document and preserve the heritage of the Atchafalaya Basin waterways. In my view, every waterway in the basin is worthy of knowing its history / heritage, some more than others, but still, all are worth understanding.

But, it’s more than that, I find myself wishing for a plain spoken explanation of how the Atchafalaya Basin waterways got to what they are today.  What did the basin waterways looked like before the Atchafalaya Floodway and industrialized man and concrete conquered and disrupted the basin hydrology and eco system?  Why are the bayous like they are?  Why / how did they change so much? Who decided where the Basin guide levees would be located?  How were the guide levees dug?   Why / how did sedimentation fill in Grand Lake?  Why did scrub shrub take over the Long View?

This writing is an attempt to educate. It is intended to delve into these issues, it is to be the  final chapter  of my book, ‘Heritage of the Atchafalaya, A Natural and Cultural History of the Atchafalaya Basin’

The interested  reader , can read my book ‘Heritage of the  Atchafalaya, A Cultural and Natural History of the Atchafalaya Basin’  and the National Geographic, vol. 156, no. 3 (September,1979) for an article on the Atchafalaya.  They provide  additional  information of how the Atchafalaya Basin evolved.  

1870 – 1932 A Bittersweet Era of the Basin

Bittersweet, because, geomorphic wise, the time period from 1870 – 1932 was the last time that the Atchafalaya River basin was a free-flowing river system and also that’s when in earnest that the Cajuns established their roots and developed a unique new heritage, Bayou Cajuns.  They became ‘Petite Habitant de Maracage, i.e., Farmers of the Swamp’.

Their way of life revolved around the different seasons of the Swamp; 

Spring, High water, annual flood pulse. 

Summer, - Middle, in between the high and low. 
3. Fall / Winter –  Low Water, Fall and Winter. 

Bittersweet, because at the  same  time it was  the beginning of the Industrial Cypress Logging in the Basin, which cut  down, a thousand years of virgin cypress trees   in less than a half century.

Historical Maps

There are very few if any, historical maps of the Atchafalaya Basin 'When It Was A Free Flowing River Basin System', that is with enough detail to use them.

For example, there is Hardee Map of the Attakapas region in 1870; it giving an outline / and general idea of the Atchafalaya River Basin’s  main bayous.  The proportion looks ok, but detail is obviously lacking.

This map clearly shows the distinct physical layout of Bayou Chene but does not call it by name.  Whereas, Bayou Sorrel, Little Bayou Pigeon, Big Bayou Pigeon, and Belle River are identified, but not in any detail.  Corroborating that they were recognized as streams of significance.

The Jeanerette  Lumber and  Shingle  Co. Outline map

For this story, I used a historical map, ‘Swamps Lands of Jeanerette Lumber and Shingle Company LTD. 1892 – 1915.  Compiled by H.B. Hewes, Vice President, Treasurer, and General Manager of Jeanerette L&S Company.  The map was never officially published but it did appear in the American Lumberman. "A Journey through the Vast Downman Cypress Interests with Camera and Pen", American Lumberman, Aug 5, 1905 pp.43-82. Chicago: American Lumberman, 1905, where it received much interest.

Hewes  had Jeanerette engineers  and timber cruisers map out the core of the Atchafalaya Basin red  cypress  area. In all my research  it is the most detailed accurate map pre USGS topo maps. Hewes went so far as to overlay the Arpents survey plot’s and the Township / Ranges, Section plot numbers on his base map.  He included outlines of legal descriptions of acres / lots  that were owned by Jeanerette L&S.

Hewes and Jeanerette Lumber Shingle would have wanted an accurate map as they were embarking on some serious industrialized cypress logging that involved a lot of money and they had a reputation of integrity in the lumber business. Essentially, 1892 was the beginning of Industrial Cypress logging in the basin, i.e., the use of the Overhead skidder and pull boat skidder system.

In my research, it is the most accurate map of the Atchafalaya Basin prior to USGS topographical maps, of which the earliest date I have seen is 1935.  The date is critical because after 1932 the Atchafalaya River did not meet the criteria to be identified as  free  flowing water way.

Jeanerette  L&S LTD. 1892 - 1919 Map

Jeanerette L&S CO. LTD 1892 -1919 Map

Route of Atchafalaya River 1892- 1919

1892 – 1932 When the Waterways Were Open, A Free-flowing River Basin System 

To fully comprehend and appreciate the heritage associated with the rivers and bayous of the Atchafalaya Basin today, you must journey back to when the Atchafalaya was a free flowing river basin system.

A free-flowing river is one unaffected by human-made changes to its flow and connectivity.

Physiographic changes  in the Atchafalaya River 

The Atchafalaya River Basin was formed as part of earlier delta formations of the Mississippi to its east and west, and by the flow of the Red River from Texas into central Louisiana.  Around 1500 AD the Mississippi meandered into Red River, the lower part of the Red, below the meander became the Atchafalaya River. 

It was free-flowing river basin system unaffected by human-made changes to its flow and connectivity. Water, silt, and other natural materials moved along unobstructed. Animals and fish could swim up and down stream at will. The river itself swelled and shrank naturally, flowed at an organic volume and rate, and replenished groundwater sources.  Prior to man's activity, the basin was characterized by sluggish streams, swamps, and extensive lakes.

Little physiographic change appears to have occurred within the Atchafalaya Basin for the first 300 years of the modern Atchafalaya River. 

All that changed in 1831, at a spot below where the Mississippi had originally meandered into the Red River. The mouth of the Atchafalaya River at the original Mississippi  / Red meander became blocked by a log jam over 20 miles long, hindering navigation. Capt. Henry M. Shreve, founder of Shreveport and a well known river engineer, dug a canal (Shreves Cut) through the neck of Turnbull's Bend connecting the Mississippi to the  Atchafalaya. Essentially  this was just  speeding up what would have  eventually occur.   Within days the cut was so large it became the Mississippi Rivers new route into the Atchafalaya River. The Atchafalaya would still carry water from the Red River but not direct from the Mississippi.

With the removal of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River rafts, log jams beginning in the 1840’s to 1870’s, the Atchafalaya River main channel scoured its way through the natural basin from the northwest to southeast corner.  The Atchafalaya River progressively increased its diversion of waters from the Mississippi River and each year the Atchafalaya became a more aggressive, dangerous river in the spring flood pulse.

For thousands of years the Atchafalaya Basin had soaked up the Mississippi River’s annual floodwater's and distributed them throughout its streams, bayous, lakes and fresh water marshlands. Water flowed in and spread all around. There was nothing to hold it back or hem it in. It was a balanced system. The annual flood pulse brought much-needed nutrients to the swamp and the fish and wildlife were abundant.

The Grand River 1872 – 1919 and  the Spring  Flood Pulse

The natural system was balanced 

The best explanation of the spring  flood pulse, ‘The Fountain of Youth’, by Charles Tenney Jackson, 1914, Chapter XI, ‘Adrift in the Floating Gardens’… “The Grand River in spring time jets out of the Atchafalaya, which spouts out of the swollen side of the Mississippi. The Atchafalaya wanders down through a dozen lakes and nameless bayous to the Gulf and the Grand meanders it way along side, with now and then an interlocking arm or bayou running across to its neighbor, and then these streams flow in and out, back and forth in a crazy – patch fashion through unbroken forest…”

Grand River, East Fork Pigeon, Pat’s Bay, Bayou Sorrel 1892 - 1919

Note the East/West – North / South flow patterns and connections of the bayous / streams, and the arpent surveying (land division) method, long narrow strips of land, fronting the bayous / streams used in this area of the basin. The arpent system facilitated rapid settlement of the swamp, by providing as many settlers as possible with some bayou frontage for access. Which indirectly enticed settlers to the area and also allowing small farmers, who could not afford to buy large blocks or tracts to purchase smaller tracts. Private ownership of land in the basin, versus public ownership, can be traced back to the desire of the French, Spanish and the USA, to settle the area and convert what (at the time) they thought to useless swamp land to productive agriculture land. 

In English units, an arpent is   192 feet with the usual stream-front property measuring 8 arpents along the stream and 40 arpents to the rear of the property, with perpendicular lines extending from each end of the property to the rear of the property (giving the advantage to convex property owners, where the perpendicular lines would fan out as they proceeded towards the rear).

Lower Grand River, Little Bayou Pigeon, Big Bayou Pigeon, Cross Bayou, Cutoff, Bayou Postillion, Bayou Fourche, Bayou Mallet, Indigo Bayou, Bayou Choctaw

Note, the water flow down Grand River  allowed the  flood pulse back into basin flood plain, (after directing  the  flow to the east at Upper Grand  River)  via into Little Bayou Pigeon.  At the same time flow through Bayou Choctaw, Lake Natchez  allowed  flood pulse east of Grand River  through Bayou Grosbec to the Lake Verrett water shed… abundant fresh water and nutrients for fisheries… flood pulse could really spread out… More Balance

Lower Grand River, Little Bayou Long, Big Bayou Long / Big Fork, Mystic Crew Bayou 

Note the many streams of water flow straight south, downhill, into Old River.  Facilitating fast flow, good current keeping Old River wide and deep… into Lower Grand River, Godell, and Belle River and on to the Grassy Lake, Lake Palourde.  At the same time feeding south to old Bayou Long.

The elevation of the swamp floor in the area below Old River, between Grand Lake and Lower Grand River is some of the lowest bed elevations in the entire Lower Atchafalaya Floodway.

Belle River, Old Bayou Long, Lake Palourde, Flat Lake, Duck Lake, Willow Cove

Note the number of streams available to distribute the flood pulse into lower Grand Lake and out the Atchafalaya River into Berwick Bay.  Also, the map cartographer nomenclature for Atchafalaya River goes into what is considered Bayou Teche to Patterson, La.

Bayou Long, Wildcat Bayou / West Fork Bayou Long, Middle Fork Bayou Long, Mockingbird Bayou, Old River


Wildcat Bayou / West  Fork Bayou Long, and Mockingbird  Bayou are well defined even in low  water stages,  meaning in annual flood  pulse they would have been  fast  flowing  open streams. 

Sediment transport along the bed of a river / stream naturally affects the health of streams. When flow slows down sedimentation falls out. This makes you wonder how much influence water hyacinths and invasive grass played a part in sedimentation when they slow the flow   of these streams.

Bayou Chene, Lake Dautervive, Lake Fausse Point


Bayou Grand  Gueule, Bayou Benoit, Bayou Grand, Bayou De Plomb, Little Gonsoulin  Bayou, Bayou Eugene, Bayou Gravenburg,   Bayou Chene facilitated annual  flood pulse evenly down the  west  side of the Basin

Bayou Chene, Bayou Crook Chene

Bayou Chene, translated to Oak Bayou a small unincorporated community in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana, United States. The community was located in the center of Atchafalaya Basin and was primarily of Anglo / Saxon, English speaking heritage in a predominant Bayou Cajun culture.  It was the only and the last inhabited swamp community in the interior of the Atchafalaya Basin. It had a Post office, school and church. Established in the 1830’s, abandoned in the 1950’s due to extreme flooding. 

The physical landscape, the  four corners made Bayou Chene a natural location for trapper rendezvous’ in the early exploration  of the basin and as  an inhabited place of  settlers in antebellum era.

Lake Chicot, Grand  Lake, Hog Island, Keel Boat Pass, Catfish Bayou,  Bayou Cowan,  Smith Bayou, Little Bayou  Pigeon, Hoop-Pole  Bayou, Buffalo Cove, Little  Buffalo Cove to Lake Fausse  Point


Lake Fausse Point and Grand Lake still open to each other in this era. It appears where Lake Chicot emptied into Grand Lake, formed 4 sand bars. Two of which are Hog Island and Turkey Island and the other two unnamed.  All surveyed, which means they were formed before 1836. This means there was sedimentation in this area from the early 1800’s.

Catfish Bayou,  Bayou Cowan,  Smith Bayou,  look to be braided streams formed from fast flowing waters as they start as sloughs and get bigger until they dump into Grand Lake. Most likely started in the early 1800’s and matured when the river rafts were removed from the head of the Atchafalaya.

Whereas, Little Bayou Pigeon and Big Bayou Pigeon are much older, typical meandering type streams from lower Grand River until they dump into Grand Lake.

With the exception of Shreve's 1831 cut, the Atchafalaya Basin, was still a free flowing river basin system until the 1930’s.

The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927... and the Birth of the Atchafalaya  Floodway

Unless you live under a rock, most of the folks in Louisiana are aware of familiar with the existence of the Atchafalaya Floodway.  

As a result of the most extreme flood in North American recorded history, the Great Flood of 1927, the U.S. Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928, authorizing construction of levees, floodways, and other landscape /waterscape modifications to control the flow of the Mississippi River. The design of the most elaborate flood control system in United States history began immediately after the Flood Control Act of 1928.  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brainstormed several ways to control Old Man River.  It included a massive system of levees on the Lower Mississippi.  But, the Corps concluded levees alone would not be enough; the Corps of Engineers included in the plan the concept of floodway’s that could be opened up and speed the flood pulse to a receiving basin to relieve the pressure off the levees.  Later the plans included straightening, wider, deeper channels in the Atchafalaya River.  

In South Louisiana, the corps plan included a mind boggling idea, to leave the headwaters of the Atchafalaya River open, hem in the natural Atchafalaya River Basin between two levees, create a gigantic floodway, 1,400,000 acres of mostly bottomland hardwood and cypress / tupelo swamp between levees, set seventeen miles apart.

The stated design of the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway would be to speed about one half of any 1000 year flood pulse of the Mississippi River / Red river to the Gulf of Mexico, essentially acting like a big ditch.  This would take enough pressure off the lower Mississippi River levees and prevent the river from topping and / or crevassing the levees.

Floodway guide levees!  What Have We Done to the Atchafalaya Basin? An Explanation!

Obviously, Floodways need guide levees!  To minimize the flooding of private land, for the most part the route of the guide levees would be built on the rim of the lowest areas through the Atchafalaya Basin, roughly five to ten miles on either side of the Atchafalaya River, from Simmesport to Morgan City.

The new guide levees would cut off more than 22 natural streams carrying nutrient rich flood waters to basin deltaic plain every spring.  Not only disrupting the flow but cutting off all annual flood pulse water flow areas outside the levees, basically freezing  those distributaries in time by reducing natural sedimentation process of the  annual spring flood pulse.

East Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee (EABPL).

This levee begins at the lower end of the levees built along banks of the Atchafalaya River (see the figure below)  In the 1950’s  the Corps tied the levees of the new  Morganza Floodway, into the EABPL. From there it extends southward to and through Morgan City to the Avoca Island Cutoff, and includes the Bayou 
Boeuf and Bayou Sorrel locks. The length of this system is 106.7 miles, including 1.3 miles of floodwall along the Morgan City front and about 0.4 mile of floodwall below Morgan City. 

Modern day pictorial outline of the Levees of the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System 
National Geographic, vol. 156, no. 3 (September,1979), Trouble in Bayou Country, pg 37 

The Atchafalaya Basin Levee District and the city of Morgan City are responsible for operation and maintenance of this feature. 

Upper Grand River, Bayou Sorrel

Levee  construction in the  Upper Grand River area and  Bayou Sorrel area had the  affect of  isolating  the Pat’s Bay area, Bayou Choctaw, and Lake  Natchez  water sheds from the annual spring  flood pulse. Essentially freezing that landscape / waterscape as it existed  at that time. 

Stream closures at Upper Grand River and Bayou Sorrel, forced the flood pulse down the new Borrow Canal Channel. Prior to the Floodway, water flowed down Grand River not only into Little Bayou Pigeon, but through Bayou Choctaw, through Lake Natchez to the Lake Verrett water shed…eliminating  critical abundant fresh water flow  and nutrients for fisheries. 

Lower Grand River, Little Bayou Pigeon, Big Bayou Pigeon, Cross Bayou, Cutoff, Bayou Postillion, Bayou Fourche, Bayou Mallet, Indigo Bayou, Bayou Choctaw

Think about it, Closures at Bayou Pigeon, Bayou Postillion and Bayou Fourche  forced the annual flood pulse down the new borrow canal channel.  The  area to absorb and  spread out the annual  Flood Pulse was significantly reduced.

Construction of the levee cut through cultural features of the Basin. Priceless remnants of the Palfrey Sugar Plantation Sugar Mill were left on the west edge of the borrow canal near Bayou Postillion, the  brick floor of the sugar kettles was visible until the 1940’s.  Whereas, today they are covered with up to 12 ft of sedimentation.

Interesting Trivia

Clearing the path for the EABPL Levee  from Upper Grand River to Old River was done with three separate contracts. Grand River to Bayou Sorrel. Bayou Sorrell to Bayou Pigeon. Bayou Pigeon to Old River. [1]

Interesting side note,  that 1935 USGS maps show the new levee completed on both sides of Little Bayou Pigeon, but the bayou intact.

Obviously, this means closing the gap and actual cutting Little Bayou Pigeon off from the floodway was done sometime in 1936 and after the levees were completed on both sides to that point. The  author could find no explanation  for this  sequencing.

Closure at Little Bayou Pigeon 1936

Closure of Little Bayou Pigeon at Lower Grand River 1936

Closure of Little Bayou Pigeon 1936 

Interviews with Mr. Edmond Berthelot and Mr. Felix Berthelot two lifelong residents of Bayou Pigeon, revealed the borrow canal for levees from Bayou Sorrel to Bayou Pigeon was dug wet. While the borrow canal from Old River to Bayou Pigeon was dug dry.  Mr. Edmond clearly remembered that cattle would wander off the edges of the dry borrow canal and to had be removed with ropes and much difficulty because the banks were too steep.

Closing the waterways, was not so easy –

Both men recalled that closing the bayou was more difficult than the Corps of Engineers planned.

At first, a suction dredge was brought in; the dredge was not able to close the opening. A dipper dredge and barge was brought in.  The barge was sunk across the gap and spoil was placed behind the barge to keep the spoil from washing out until closure was stable enough and then was removed.

About the  artist Illustration:

Since I could find no photographs of the damming of Little Bayou Pigeon, Mr. Stan Routh and I corroborated on producing a sketch of how it was done. This sketch was based on interviews I had done with Mr. Edmund Berthelot (Ed-Maw), Mr. Felician (Felix) Berthelot. Also Mr. Ray Gilchrist, unpublished book, Stories of a Bayou Man. 

I also used pictures of the closing of a cut left open in  the new levee one mile  south of Little Bayou Pigeon (see pages 250 - 254 of the Bayou Pigeon Book), The logic  and reason  leaving that cut open and  closing Little  Bayou pigeon is unknown.  That cut was finally filled in 1945.

I view the damning of Little Bayou Pigeon as the single most important event to shape the destiny of Bayou Pigeon, physically and culturally. Sort of Like the battle of Gettysburg of the Civil War and destiny of the USA.

Priceless information / heritage that would have lost without their interview.

Lower Grand River, The Godell, Belle River; Old River, Little Bayou Long, Big Bayou Long / Big Fork, Bayou Pierre Part, Lake Verrett


Blocking Old River was a game changer, both naturally and culturally for the Lake Verrett water shed, good and bad, depending how you want to look at it.  Why is that?  Lack of water flow from annual flood pulse through Old River protected the surrounding swamp from sedimentation and at same time reduced the nutrients for the fisheries in that area.

On the positive side, we have a living snap shot of what the Atchafalaya Basin looked liked before the Floodway,  when the hydrology and  sedimentation patterns were changed by man. 

West Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee (WABPL), (See map page 17)

This guide  levee begins near the town of Hamburg, where it joins the Bayou des Glaises fuse-plug levee, a levee designed to fail in extreme  floods. It extends in a south and south-easterly direction to the Wax Lake Outlet at the latitude of the East and West Calumet Floodgates and thence eastward through Berwick to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. This levee extends 128.7 miles and connects with 3 miles of floodwall along the front of the town of Berwick. Structures along the levee include Bayou Darbonne and Courtableau drainage structures, the Charenton Floodgate, and the Berwick Lock.

The Red River, Atchafalaya, and Bayou Boeuf Levee District, the Atchafalaya Basin Levee District, the town of Berwick, and the St. Mary Parish police jury manage the WAPBL levee.

Lake Dautervive, Lake Fausse Point Area

Bayou Grand  Gueule, Bayou Benoit, Bayou Grand, Bayou De plomb, Little Gonsoulin  Bayou, Bayou Eugene, Bayou Gravenburg,   all  closed by west  Atchafalaya Basin Protection  Levee (WABPL).

Thus, we have another archaeological relic, Lake Fausse Point and  surrounding  swamp.  When the WABPL levee cut the distributary flow of  the bayous flowing into it, without the flow of water  and sedimentation it  was basically  frozen in time.  It looks now pretty much like it looked  did in the 1930s. The landmass there is virtually unchanged, except now it has a lot of trees that grew over time.

Channel Dredging

Before the  floodway levees  could be  finished, the Army engineers  were  concerned floodway guide levees would not be enough to handle a 1000 year flood. The Corp quickly added to the floodway plan Atchafalaya River Main Channel Improvement Dredging.  The straightening, widening and channelization of the Atchafalaya River main channel to increase flow capacity and speed the  flow through the basin.

Source 1. Ferguson memorandum, Vicksburg Mississippi, Feb. 16, 1934, Box 87, Accession 76 A-1429, Record Group 77, Fort  Worth Records Center, National Archives and Records  Administration. 2. Designing the Bayous: The Control of Water in the Atchafalaya Basin, 1800-1995 (Gulf Coast Books, sponsored by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi) (Paperback) by Martin Reuss  

The dredging was to extend from the Atchafalaya River at Alabama Bayou to the main body of Six Mile Lake on the  southern end of Grand  Lake  system.

Literal interpretation of Ferguson Four Channels

In addition to the Whiskey Bay channelization, other sections of the Atchafalaya River main channel were dredged plus some other distributary streams were dredged. Still other historic distributary streams were intentionally closed where they left the river to force the bulk of the flood pulse to stay in the main river channel and hence, to scour the channel wider and deeper naturally.

Dr Martin Reuss, Corp of  Engineers historian cautioned me  that Ferguson's Four channels  may not have been  completed as  drawn. 

There is data to suggest that conditions on the ground changed  some the dredging plans / operations.

Actual Post-1932 Dredging;  By Gordon William McCain, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Masters Thesis.

The solid red lines indicate dredging locations from 1932-1948 along the Atchafalaya River and other distributary channels .  No work has been performed on channel dredging since December 1968.

What Happened at Whiskey Bay? Atchafalaya River Mile 56.4 

Big Bayou  Alabama before Lower  End  Closure Bayou, Bayou  Courtableau Closure
1880’s  LA.. Historical Maps  Association, 'Delta of Mississippi River, and Approaches to New Orleans'

Alabama Bayou, (sometimes referred to Big Alabama Bayou) and Little Alabama Bayou were off chutes of the Atchafalaya River, below Krotz Springs, LA. around river mile 45.  They flowed south parallel to the Atchafalaya River’s main channel. 

In 1935 the Corps of Engineers closed the lower end of Alabama Bayou where it re-entered the Atchafalaya River and a number of other  distributary bayous, (Bayou Courtableau, Indian Bayou) to increase the flow of water in the main channels. 

1892 - 1919 Big Alabama / Little Alabama  Bayou course,  JL&S Map

Modern day Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel

Between 1934 to 1937 the  Corps created the  Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel, a 40 ft  deep and  much wider  channel  not only to speed water  flow  for flood  control but to improve commerce and marine traffic.  

The man-made Whiskey  Bay Pilot Channel was dredged in the old bed of Big Alabama Bayou through Oska / Whiskey Bay Chute.  The wider and deeper Whiskey Bay Channel had the almost immediate unintended effect of reducing the flow of the historic Atchafalaya River channel through Butte La Rose and sending 75% of the annual flood pulse each spring, straight down Little Tensas Bayou straight down through Lake Mongolois, Lake Chicot to Grand Lake.

From that point, you could say,  the fate of Grand Lakes was sealed, increased sedimentation filled in  Grand  Lake. 

Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System (ABFS) 

The Atchafalaya Floodway project has produced many undesirable results for the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Natural Atchafalaya Basin. Intuitively obvious was the levees increased the height of flooding inside the Basin; areas that only flooded in extreme condition were now inundated every season.  Removal /blockage of drainage paths from the upper reaches of the Grand River watershed into the basin increased flooding in low areas outside the Basin levees as rainwater in the upper reaches moved through a restricted path on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The result, heretofore unseen backwater flooding.  Higher flood levels inside the levees forced eventual permanent migration of residents from small communities like Bayou Chene, Atchafalaya Town and countless isolated shanties’ built on the natural alluvial ridges of bayous and streams throughout the basin.  Even houseboat communities were not spared; you could not have a small garden or raise chickens.

The closing of streams at the levees and the main channel also reduced the amount of water flowing through the cypress-tupelo swamps and, in many cases, forced water to flow back into areas from the south instead of entering from the north, as it had before the closures. The back-flow filling of swamps and lakes aggravated sedimentation and removed the natural flow of water through those areas.

The flow that had washed silt and decayed plant matter from the swamps in high water times, tended to flow into an area, slow down and sit until the water level dropped significantly, often draining only once in a flood cycle instead of continually as it had in the past.

The result of the new patterns caused by the levees and stream closures has been the loss of the open and deep water areas inside the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System (ABFS).  Thousands of acres of open water in the chain of Lakes, i.e. Lake Chicot, Flat Lake, Grand Lake, Duck Lake and Six Mile Lake are now willow flats and stands of cottonwood trees. A new inland delta formation was created, caused by the increased silt carried by the deep, straight channel being dropped in the wide, slower-moving lake. While the new land might be good habitat for some wildlife, the lack of deep water makes it harder for fish to flourish during low water and high temperature periods.

On the other hand, in the 2011  flood the Atchafalaya Floodway  help / played a major role in protecting 4.1 million people, kept 10 million acres from flooding,and prevented 108 billion dollars in damage.  Keep in mind the cost benefit ratio over time.

The Modern Day Atchafalaya Basin  and Atchafalaya Floodway 

Today, the Atchafalaya River flows through  its 150-mile run to the gulf, through 4  distinct  landscapes. The first 40 miles feels a little bit like the Mississippi River, the levees are close in and there is very little floodplain on either side.  Over the levee you will find big agriculture fields stretching to the horizon. At mile marker 27 where the Morganza Floodway enters, is the beginning of the bottomland forest.  Below mile 40 (US 190/Krotz Springs) all agriculture has become a thing of the past and the Atchafalaya lives up to its name as “the River of Trees.”  

The levees end flood plain becomes almost 20 miles wide.  The Atchafalaya River divides into smaller channels flowing through extensive forests, swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin, and some of its small communities.  

Below Upper Grand River bottomland hardwood forests fall away with the high ground and or replaced by the largest contiguous stand of cypress-tupelo gum forests in North America.  

From Upper Grand River to Flat Lake in the East Basin, and from Butte La Rose to Bayou Teche in the West Basin the cypress-tupelo gum swamps line most of the bayous, lakes and canals that parallel the main channel.  Below Morgan City high ground falls away completely and are replaced by endless grass and cane marshes with some willows and other scrubby undergrowth.  

The Atchafalaya Basin is still great and a  National treasure.

 2018 - Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System ; A Multipurpose Comprehensive River Basin Management System

By U.S. law the Corps of Engineers is mandated to provide a multipurpose comprehensive plan for the Atchafalaya floodway. One that provides flood protection to south-central Louisiana and at the same time preserves the natural ecosystem of the Atchafalaya Basin within constraints of budget and logic and reason.

The strategy of the current Multiagencies Atchafalaya Basin Management Program is to restore historical overflow patterns to the extent practicable, encourage free flow nutrient providing water over bank movement through defined management units, and reduce sediment deposition within the ABFS with the ultimate goal of restoring and enhancing the aquatic environment.

The effect of today’s depth and duration of flooding crosses multiple scientific disciplines, e.g. Forestry, Fisheries, Wildlife, Hydrology, Civil Engineering, etc.  It affects our forests.  It affects our fisheries.

The Atchafalaya Basin was a free flowing River Basin System until the 1930’s.  To restore its historical overflow patterns is not practical, we cannot turn back time, but we can start looking at ways to slow this artificial acceleration.

If we are going to work on restoring the ecosystem of the Atchafalaya Basin as much as practical, first, you must know what you are restoring it to. Which begs the question, what is the baseline?

Know the Heritage

1. The current Atchafalaya Basin is still great, still a national treasure, but it is not the free flowing river system it once  was.  

2. The  ecosystem / folklife ways have  changed but they are still similar /  recognizable  to what it was  in 1932.

2. We are not alone. The Yellowstone River in Montana is the only major free flowing river in the contiguous 48 states that has not been severely altered for flood control, navigation or hydro-power.

3. Building the Atchafalaya Floodway was done for the benefit of the entire United States of America. Channelization of the streams of the Atchafalaya Basin, widening and deepening the main river channels, kept the physical size of the floodway to a minimum. To the U.S. Government flood control, saving lives and property is paramount, everything else is secondary.  Trade offs were and are still are required of everyone. However, that does not mean local government / agencies have no input to planning, strategic and tactical.

4. Over the years we have over manipulated / over managed  the Atchafalaya Basin, for just about everything, from  industrial logging, flood control, marine transportation / logistics, discovery and production of fossil fuels, dumping grounds for hazard wastes, recreation and so on.  That does not preclude the future need for some of those activities.  It means that prudent management is required.

5. The Atchafalaya Basin cannot be fully restored to a free-flowing river basin system. The best we can do is to protect, preserve and work to restore much as practical.

6. Murphy's Laws... Everything will eventually happen given infinite time.

7. The  Atchafalaya says...Let My waters flow!


Geomorphological Investigation Of The Atchafalaya Basin, Area West, Atchafalaya Delta, And Terrebonne Marsh; Volume I; 1986,  Technical Report GL-86-3, Lawson M. Smith, Louis D. Britsch, Joseph B. Dunbar

Swamps Lands of Jeanerette Lumber and Shingle Company LTD. 1892 – 1915.  Compiled by H.B. Hewes, Vice President and Treasurer, and General Manager of Jeanerette L&S Company

The Changing Geomorphology of the Atchafalaya River, Louisiana: A Historical Perspective, Joann Mossa, Department of Geography, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, United States, 13 August 2014, Revised 24 August 2015,

Historical changes of a major juncture: Lower Old River, Louisiana
Joann Mossaa, Department of Geography, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, 32611, USA, 31 Oct 2013.

What we've done to the Mississippi River: An Explainer, Alexis C. Madrigal; May 19, 2011

Controlling the River: maintaining the Mississippi river for National Commerce, History of the Old River area and development of the Old River Control Complex, US Corps of Engineers, 1999

A Tale of Two Rivers, Agnieszka Gautier October 11, 2013

The Control of Nature: Atchafalaya,  McPhee, J. 1987.

Designing the Bayous: The Control of Water in the Atchafalaya Basin, 1800-1995 (Gulf Coast Books, sponsored by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi) (Paperback) by Martin Reuss 

Comeaux, Malcolm Louis, "Settlement and Folk Occupations of the Atchafalaya Basin." (1969). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 1646.

Hall, John Whitling, "Louisiana Survey Systems: Their Antecedents, Distribution, and Characteristics." (1970). LSU Historical, Dissertations and Theses. 1724.

Taylor, James William, "The Agricultural Settlement Succession in the Prairies of Southwest Louisiana." (1956). LSU HistoricalDissertations and Theses. 157.

'The Way Things Were by a Bayou Man, Mr. Ray Gilchrist, unpublished.

The  Atchafalaya Project, US Corps of  Engineers, New Orleans district, Brochure

History of Levee Building on the Mississippi River, Apr 2018, Plate Tectonics

Controlling The River: Maintaining The Mississippi River For National Commerce.
History Of The Old River Area And Development Of The Old River Control Complex (ORCS), U.S. Corps of Engineers,

McCain, Gordon William, "Influences of Channel Dredging on Avulsion Potential at the Atchafalaya River" (2016).Theses and Dissertations. 1559.

National Geographic, vol. 156, no. 3 (September,1979), Trouble in Bayou Country, pg 37

Atchafalaya Basin Program , History & New Focus, ASCE, April 15, 2011, LDNR

Interview with Dr. Bryan Piazza, 2011,Alison M. Jones, No Water No Life®, NWNL Director

A Limited History of the Atchafalaya  Basin, by Charles R. Caillouet, Jr., President, FOA Board of Directors,

[1] From the records of  Mr. Claiborne Landry who had the right of way clearing  contract for the section, Bayou Sorrel to Bayou Pigeon, and 'The Way Things Were by a Bayou Man, Mr. Ray Gilchrist, unpublished.

[2] Interviews by author with Mr. Edmond Berthelot and Mr. Felix Berthelot

Cliff LeGrange  / or 225 776 26

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