The Mississippi River has no regard for the planning of our society. The river basin is the third largest in the world, draining 1,245,000 square miles. With all this water flowing, the geological forces of the earth are hard at work on the Mississippi.
The steadily churning power of the Mississippi was easily recognized by Mark Twain, who stated in his 1883 book, Life on the Mississippi, “One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver—not aloud, but to himself—that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey.”
The lawless nature Twain describes would lead the Mississippi to uniquely change course and be absorbed in the direction of its distributary, the Atchafalaya River, if not for our efforts. If the Mississippi completely shifted track, it would likely be an economic catastrophe for the U.S. So, mainly since the 1950s, engineers have attempted to control the course of the Mississippi River with a series of mechanisms, including locks, dams, and gates.
The Mississippi is a clear example of the ongoing change occurring in a river system, but every river operates in similar ways on its own scale. In this video by Practical Engineering, paddlers get a free lesson on how our rivers work and humankind’s endless efforts to control them.