LSS: The Mighty Mississippi

I learned how to spell M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I in pre-school.
It wasn’t a fancy education by any means. My teachers simply believed in teaching us all about where we come from—and starting that education young.
Though I’ve lived most of my life within a short drive of the muddy waters of the mightiest river in our land, until Thursday I had never been on it.
Of course I’ve crossed it too many times to count, almost always looking down and thinking of Huck and Jim, then quickly correcting the visualization of the pair on a tiny raft on that immense stretch thinking, “Up in Missouri, it’s not this wide.”
But the river I know is wide.
Even though I had never been on its actual waters until this week, the “Father of Waters” has been a part of my life for as far back as I have been.
And as far back as my parents have been.
And their parents.
And a couple of generations beyond that.
That river either brought us or made us stop.
That river is a part of who I am—all those sediments (and everything else its waters bring, good and bad) churning southward, coming from so many places, creating water that isn’t pretty in the way someone somewhere made me think water should be.
But its waters do run deep.
So, on Thursday, I was practically giddy to be in a small metal boat crossing with scientists from one side of the river to the other as they measured the water’s flow.
I met Garron Ross, Todd Bauman and Jennifer LaVista from the United States Geological Survey in Baton Rouge, just north of the I-10 bridge. They were doing the work they’ve been doing for weeks as the waters have continued to rise. They took me along for the ride.
Ross and Bauman spend a lot of time on the river. I watched as they worked their technological wonders and took measurements on the east side of the river, then crossed to the west side and took another. Then, they did it again.
They used Doppler technology to measure the stream flow. Technically, they’re measuring the rate of the sediments in the water, as opposed to the water itself. If you think about how a sonogram image appears—capturing the differences between solids and liquids, you can imagine how this works. It’s all the same basic technology.
To count as an official measurement, scientists collect four sets of data, two on each side of the river in as close to the same spot as possible. To determine an official measurement, each of the four CFS, or cubic foot per second, measurements must be within five percent of each other. They then take the average of the four measurements and report their findings to the Army Corps of Engineers who use the data to help determine what to do next.
As we patiently waited for barges to speed by as we crossed the river, we also dodged tree limbs and planks (not to mention the occasional plastic half-filled Dr. Pepper bottle). Bauman and Ross took the measurements successfully. The CFS came in at 1.44 MILLION cubic feet. That’s 1.44 million cubic feet of water flowing per second from any one point straight down, which was the highest reading they had ever measured at that spot.
To put it in perspective, if you saw the Morganza Spillway open its first bay, the CFS there was just above 10,000 CFS. To add even more perspective, there are 7.48 gallons of water in one cubic foot. So, from any given spot of our crossing Thursday morning, there were more than 10.7 million gallons of water flowing per second.
That’s a lot of water.
A relationship with that much water can’t help but be love/hate. The river bringeth, and the river taketh away.
Riding on that much water reminded me of the miracles involved with a system that works as well as it does. Watching Ross and Bauman do their jobs reminded me that there’s a lot of unseen work that goes into co-existing with a river that big. Watching the river run reminded me that it all just keeps on going. There isn’t any stopping it.
So you better cross it when you’re able.

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