Field Experience: Environmental Justice on the Mississippi River in Louisiana

Humphrey School researcher shares first-hand observations from a recent trip to Baton Rouge and New Orleans
July 3, 2024
Barges travel along the Mississippi River
Barge traffic along the lower Mississippi River. Photo: US Department of Agriculture

By Erin Niehoff, policy analyst, Center for Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy 

How do values around water vary based on socioeconomic and geographic differences along the Mississippi River, from the headwaters in northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico? 

That's a question that Humphrey School Associate Professor Bonnie Keeler and a group of researchers—including me—are exploring as part of a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assess the benefits of a cleaner Mississippi River and inform federal water policy.

At more than 2,300 miles long, the Mississippi is one of the great commercial waterways of the world thanks to decades of investments in infrastructure, including a network of locks, dams, levees, dikes, and diversions. The river provides opportunities for fishing, recreation, and commerce, along with drinking water for more than 20 million people.  

But the river and its neighboring communities also face threats from agriculture, industry, and climate change—threats that disproportionately burden low-income populations and communities of color.

Our research project includes visits to different cities along the Mississippi, where we meet with environmental justice organizers focused on the challenges facing their communities. The research team went to Minneapolis and Memphis in 2022 and St. Louis last year

Earlier this year, we went to Louisiana. We spent time in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the largest metropolitan areas before the Mississippi River reaches the gulf.

Protection from the water 

Atlantic Alumina facility near the Mississippi River
The Atlantic Alumina facility on the bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Photo: Erin Niehoff

Small towns dot the landscape between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. They are remnants of the plantation communities that were formed by formerly enslaved people following the end of the Civil War. 

By the 19th century, extensive levee systems were constructed along the river to protect trade navigation, agricultural lands, and burgeoning cities. 

In response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a more robust system of levees, spillways, and floodways, aiming to prevent such disasters in the future. 

The hard infrastructure that’s in place to protect communities from flooding and to protect navigation has led to the area becoming a major industrial corridor. Petrochemical facilities built along the Mississippi River use it to transport their goods and to discharge their wastewater. 

These industries produce toxic pollution that increases health risks for nearby residents. For example, the area from Baton Rouge to New Orleans has been dubbed “Cancer Alley,” and some of the plantation communities have been displaced due to unsafe environmental conditions.

Can’t see the river

Pedestrian bridge over the Mississippi River in New Orleans
A steep pedestrian bridge spans a levee and flood walls to a park along the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Photo: Bonnie Keeler

It is surprisingly challenging to physically touch the Mississippi River in Louisiana. While driving the River Road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, we rarely even caught glimpses of the river as it was blocked off from the road by the levee system. Access points are built for industrial facilities and their private use, rather than for public enjoyment. 

In New Orleans, large levees and floodwalls block the view of the river from many parts of the city, and those who want to visit riverfront parks must cross steep pedestrian bridges. Physical and psychological barriers come between Louisiana residents and the river. People who live in this area of the river’s watershed often see the water as a source of concern—even dangerous.  

New Orleans is surrounded on many sides by water, and its low elevation and flat terrain make effective drainage a critical issue. This was evident when much of the city was flooded for weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. 

The Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, which was formed after Katrina, is working with others to restore bayous and coastline to better protect the city from future storm surge events. 

The area often sees significant flooding even when it rains. Just one inch of rain can quickly overwhelm the city’s aging drainage infrastructure. Residents have adapted to this reality by planning their lives around the weather. When rain is in the forecast, people try to work from home, keep their children home from daycare or even school, and stock up on supplies. 

A coalition of community groups, water experts, businesses, and nonprofits has come together to propose a variety of policy-oriented solutions to improve stormwater management and improve residents’ relationship with water. 

Community values should inform policy decisions

Levee alongside the Mississippi River in New Orleans Ninth Ward
A levee along the Mississippi River in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Photo: Bonnie Keeler

Living in Minneapolis, I have always viewed the Mississippi River as a recreational amenity first, with flooding risks and transportation of goods a distant second and third. But in Louisiana, the river’s main functions are to transport goods and receive industrial waste, not as a place to spend time in nature. 

Every place is different and has its own nuanced histories that contribute to people’s concerns about the environment and their well-being. Getting different perspectives helps make environmental justice work more meaningful and impactful. 

Research projects like this one from the Humphrey School, which looks at the connections among community values, water, and the broader environment, help to inform policy decisions at all levels of government. 

That’s especially true at the federal level, where the Biden administration has established the Justice40 Initiative that aims to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from certain federal investments to disadvantaged communities.

This project is part of a long-term investment to build relationships with practitioners and community leaders that will lead to a lifetime of research and engagement on the social and ecological dynamics of the Mississippi River.