Monday, May 16, 2011

Tough, Unfair Choices on the Mississippi

The opening of the Morganza spillway and other floodgates on the Mississippi to avoid flooding in Baton Rouge and New Orleans may be necessary, and it may be a last resort, but it's far from fair. To expect people in the Cajun country of Louisiana to sacrifice their homes, crops, and livelihoods for people downstream is cruel, and it exhibits a problem that needs to be addressed: that human beings have yet to learn to live with nature, and adapt to nature, rather than trying to contain it.

The levee system on the Mississippi has existed in some form since the early 1700s; in the 1850s the federal government got involved, and the result, over many decades, has been an elaborate system of barricades and spillways built and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and designed to contain the Mississippi within its banks. Unfortunately, by containing normal flooding that would ordinarily take place over a vast area, it channels the waters of this powerful river into a narrow path and, where flooding exists, makes it much worse than it would otherwise be.

To avoid an environmental catastrophe as the Mississippi floods Baton Rouge and New Orleans and the many oil refineries and oil storage facilities in the area, the people of rural Louisiana are being threatened with the loss of their way of life. It's time to come up with some solutions, both in terms of an environmentally sound response to the river's spring flooding and to the practice of locating homes, farms and businesses within the river's flood zones, that prevent this kind of human tragedy. A levee system that is more diffuse and that accommodates normal flooding while protecting people and property may be possible; oddball solutions like homes that actually float -- houseboats, in other words -- may make sense for people whose lives are tied to the flood zones of the Mississippi. Crops that can survive flooding or that can be replanted and grow after flooding make sense for the region. Maybe flooding can be controlled in such a way that it doesn't have the devastating impact that this major flood will likely have on the farmland itself. The best scientific minds need to be put onto this problem.

Meanwhile, in the short term, those who have been put in harm's way by the actions of the Army Corps of Engineers need to be compensated for their losses. The right of eminent domain allows land to be taken for the public good, but with fair compensation, and it seems that this concept applies here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Why Red States Should Support High-Speed Rail

High-speed rail is being pushed by the Obama administration as vital to the future of the U.S., but is being opposed by conservative Republicans as an expensive "tax and spend" idea. The conservatives may want to think twice before dismissing the idea.

In parts of the Northeast and the Midwest, towns and cities are suffering a population drain as people move west and south; rural areas are hard-hit as young people unable to support themselves are moving away from their families to cities or to areas of the country with more opportunity.

High-speed rail could help resolve this problem. An individual living in a small town or on a rural farm could drive 30 minutes to the nearest train station, get on the train and commute 200 miles to a job in a major city, and then reverse the process and be home by supper. Residents of rural areas would no longer be confined to the limited career opportunities in their immediate area, but could easily have access to jobs -- and education, art, music, and culture -- in New York, Boston, Chicago, or L.A., and still enjoy the closeness and community of small-town living.

Small-business owners, artists and designers could commute to cities around the country and promote their services and goods in person. Realtors would have access to a vast new customer base as city dwellers of modest means are able to afford homes in rural areas, while keeping their city jobs. Farm families could have some family members with access to a much-needed big-city income as others maintain the farm.

High-speed rail has a lot to offer rural, red-state America -- perhaps even more than it offers the urban dweller. The Obama administration needs to include rural America in its plans for high-speed rail, and red-state Republicans need to get on board.