Living waters

The dire straits of Louisiana wetlands

Down in the Louisiana swamps, an angler pulls a 4-pound bass from a submerged tree. On a second cast to the same spot, another fish strikes hard, so hard that it pulls the boat sideways before snapping the line.

"It was a shark. We could see its dorsal fin," says Mark Gomez.

He swears the story is not just another Cajun tall tale.

"It shows you how far things have gone," the Louisiana fisherman says.

The presence of redfish, speckled trout and other saltwater species in former freshwater marshes confirms the accuracy of that assessment, if not his fish story.

Surging water from the Gulf of Mexico is washing away bass fisheries as it destroys wetlands along Louisiana's coast.

"Twenty-five years ago, we had deep, clear bodies of water with vegetated banks," says Will Courtney, conservation director for the Louisiana BASS Federation.

"I saw Lake Penchant go from 8 to 9 feet deep, down to 1 foot," he continues. "We used to catch 30 bass in a morning there, and a friend and I once caught 108 on fly rods in one day. But we haven't caught bass there since the early 1980s.

"The north side eroded until there was no vegetation left except marsh grass, and the nutria are eating that," Courtney says. "The bank is eroding into the lake and just about filled it in."

Canals near Penchant (southwest of Houma) used to have steep sides, he explains. Now they've lost half their depth and look like saucers.

"It's harder and harder to find natural bayous," the conservation director says, adding that tree-lined shores have disappeared. "It's tougher and tougher to run the marsh, because everything is water. There's no definition."

Gary Fields, another Louisiana angler, says, "Erosion around Venice (southeast of New Orleans) has devastated the area. Oak trees have died, and brackish water has turned salty. Marsh grass died, and high places are gone."

The marsh west of the Mississippi is suffering the most, Courtney says. "But we have big problems all over the place. It's mind-boggling what has happened, and it's beyond my comprehension that it's possible to fix without major water management changes - changes that would have huge impacts on the people who live here.

"Any effort to get freshwater back in here, though, is worth it. We have to do something."

Courtney is not alone in that assessment, as state and federal resource agencies, along with partnering corporations and conservation organizations, plot a strategy to save and restore Louisiana's vanishing coastal wetlands. Right now, planners are in the midst of a three year public awareness campaign, with the ultimate objective of convincing Congress to financially support restoration, which is estimated to cost $14 billion.

Some, especially those who don't fish, might say that seems an awfully steep price to restore bass fishing. But far more is at stake here than disappearing habitat for largemouth bass.

"A cost of $14 billion probably is conservative," says Mitch Landrieu, a Louisiana state representative. "But not doing it (restoring wetlands) will cost $100 billion.

"If you think that gas prices are high right now, let Highway 1 go away, and along with it the pipeline infrastructure, and then you'll really see high prices."

Spread throughout the marshes of coastal Louisiana, pipelines, roads, platforms and other rigging were not designed to withstand pounding from waves pushing in from the Gulf of Mexico. But that is just what they are being subjected to as wetlands collapse.

"As pipes become exposed, they also are more vulnerable to damage from third parties with boat props or anchors," explains Tony Franchina of Shell Pipeline Co., LP. "Those pipes were intended to be buried below water, but they are becoming exposed as erosion occurs."

At risk is a system that provides conveyance for more than 25 percent of the oil and gas consumed in the United States.

Louisiana wetlands also sustain much of North America's waterfowl and a seafood industry that feeds the nation.

"The crabs that someone ate while visiting the Eastern Shore of Maryland, probably came from Louisiana," says Ross Melinchuk of Ducks Unlimited Inc (DU).

An estimated 95 percent of all marine species living in the Gulf of Mexico spends time in these wetlands, with about 30 percent of the nation's commercial catch coming from off Louisiana's shores.

Twenty-five percent of the breeding population of ducks rely on this habitat for four to five months, says the DU staffer.

"These wetlands play an important role for even the songbirds that people across the country enjoy in their own back yards," says Sidney Coffee from the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities.

"Menhaden (fish) oil for chicken feed comes from here," offers Mark Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. "Everyone is connected to us here. And everyone has a vested interest in solutions."

Jeff Angers, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association adds, "Everyone knows about the Everglades. When they heard they were in trouble, peopled wanted to do something about it.

"The Everglades are important, but they pale in comparison to the Louisiana wetlands."

The Problem

How have we come to a point where we are losing 25 square miles a year of what is arguably the nation's most important wetlands system?

Well, we arrived here with the best of intentions, just as we did with the Everglades and other places where we have wreaked environmental destruction.

"What happened to the Louisiana Delta is that we placed human activity here," says Robert Twilley, director for the Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology and a professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

"We then tried to control nature to protect this activity. We started building a levee system, and the flood of 1927 provided the impetus to complete it.

"The importance of wetlands was completely ignored in this process."

Sediment washing down the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers over the centuries created the marshes, bayous and islands that make up the 18,000 square miles of Louisiana coastline. Levees used for flood control, and later canals and other diversions, interrupted the process.

"Land is built over time and then degrades as the river shifts," Twilley explains. "Some land loss is a natural part of the cycle."

In a system that has not been altered, the growth of vegetation would counteract some of the sinking of the land.

But man's containment of the water that normally would spread across the Delta stopped both the nutrients that would feed those plants and the sediment that could replace deteriorating land. In addition, dams upstream in the main river and tributaries also lessened the sediment load.

As the marshes disappeared, they allowed saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico to begin to creep in.

"When you lose the freshwater push (because of diversion) to keep the saltwater out, it forms a wedge and comes up under the freshwater," says Will Courtney, conservation director of the Louisiana BASS Federation.

Water from the Gulf accelerates the destruction, as it kills aquatic vegetation and trees, and wave action dissipates the loose soil that remains. An exploding population of plant-eating nutria also contributes to wetlands loss, as do rising water levels in the world's oceans, possibly attributable to global warming and the melting of polar ice caps.

Also, some researchers suspect that the natural activation of more than 100 geologic faults is intensifying the problem. Unlike earthquake faults, which are two blocks of rock attempting to move in opposite directions horizontally, these faults are typified by blocks of softer earth sliding downward.

"We can't return things to the way they were," says Twilley. "What we want to do is rehabilitate, to restore natural processes while maintaining human activities. We want to reduce the rate of loss and protect what we have. We want to find a balance."

Looking Upstream

Diverting nutrient-laden water east and west from the Mississippi River not only will feed starving Louisiana wetlands, but also will diminish the overload that now prompts algae blooms and creates the infamous Dead Zone - an oxygen-depleted area where aquatic life cannot exist. Each summer, the Dead Zone spreads out across thousands of square miles from the mouth of the river.

But the $14 billion project to restore coastal Louisiana is only part of the wetlands work that must be done, according to William Mitsch, a professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at Ohio State University and co-author of Wetlands, an authoritative reference and textbook.
 

Mitsch says that 24 million acres of wetlands should be rebuilt up and down the Mississippi River drainage basin. The restoration would help filter out the fertilizer and animal waste that runs off farms; and it would provide the nourishment that sustains the Dead Zone. Also, he says, swamps and hardwood forests should be restored to act as nutrient sinks, and farmers should use less fertilizer.

Conclusion

The Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Louisiana have been attempting to "rehabilitate" coastal Louisiana for some years now. In fact, Congress authorized the Corps to divert freshwater from the Mississippi River into eroding wetlands in 1965.

More recently, the Caernarvon diversion project, southeast of New Orleans, was built in 1991. And managers have just begun opening up a cut from the Mississippi River into West Bay, near Venice, in hopes of growing up to 10,000 acres of wetland during the next 20 years.

But a system-wide, comprehensive approach was born when Louisiana, the Corps and other federal agencies developed the Coast 2050 plan, through the Breaux Act. Then, in August 2002, Gov. Mike Foster initiated "America's Wetland: Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana," described by state officials as "the most comprehensive public education initiative" in Louisiana history.

"We're trying to get the recognition that this land is one of the biggest assets to the United States," says the governor, who also is an outdoorsman. "In the next 40 to 50 years, it is at risk of disappearing if we sit here and do nothing."

Foster and other state and federal leaders are hoping that recognition will evolve into big dollars from Congress, possibly through funding incorporated into the 2004 Water Resources Development Act.

"We can talk all we want, and we can plan all we want, but if we don't have the money to actually make these projects real, they will just remain on the drawing board," says Mary Landrieu, a U.S. Senator from Louisiana.

"We can preserve the coast if Louisiana and federal agencies are given the financial resources to make it happen," adds Jack Caldwell, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Restoration plans and projects almost certainly will be modified as work begins and resource managers adapt to meet changing conditions. But right now, when and if funding is obtained, the Louisiana Coastal Area Plan calls for a variety of small and large diversions for water and sediment, aimed at reducing the rate of wetlands loss, maintaining existing wetlands at their current levels, and restoring wetlands in areas where they once existed.

Work also will include planting trees and aquatic vegetation to slow erosion, as well as protecting and restoring barrier islands, which form the outermost defense against saltwater intrusion into the wetlands.

"This will be a couple of decades in the fixing," says Bruce Shupp, former BASS national conservation director. "And BASS is committed to helping with this. We're in it for the long haul."

That "long haul" includes a $14 billion price tag, but considering what's at stake, that is a bargain.

Results Mixed

As the state of Louisiana pushes forward with a massive public awareness campaign which it hopes will help convince Congress to provide billions of dollars for America's Wetland, it also is proceeding with actual restoration work.

"We're not just trying to save wetlands. We're trying to save an ecosystem," says Jack Caldwell, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources. "And to do that, we're trying to reintroduce water (and sediment) to the marshes. We've built six diversions already, with plans for six more."

Two of the most notable are Davis Pond, above New Orleans, and Caernarvon Marsh, below. Thus far, results are mixed.

At the latter, pumping in freshwater has helped restore the bass fishery, says BASS member Will Courtney.

"We stocked it with Florida bass," he adds. "And it's been taking 20 to 22 pounds to win tournaments."

In addition, Caldwell says, "Waterfowl habitat increased enormously and the gator population skyrocketed with the freshening. Blue crabs increased in the intermediate salinity."

A three year study confirmed a 6 percent increase in land for Caernarvon.

On the negative side, oystermen charged that the diversion ruined their shellfish beds and won a $2 billion settlement from the state.

Up at Davis, the Corps has shut down the diversion periodically to prevent a similar conflict with shrimpers. Also, during its first year it operated for little more than three months total and at much lower rates than it is capable of, because of various complications.

And even if the Davis diversion were operating as it should, the Barataria Basin that it feeds is expected to lose 11 square miles per year for the foreseeable future.

Still, resource managers are not deterred.

"I think it's a pretty normal startup," says ecology professor John Day of Davis Pond's first year. "My opinion is that diversions should be a part - and need to be part - of the restoration of the Mississippi Delta."

Caldwell adds, "We believe in adaptive management, learning as you go. We know what we're doing, but we have a lot to learn also as we upscale."

The Value List

Following are some good reasons why we must save Louisiana's coastal swamps, marshes and bayous:

- More than 95 percent of all marine species in the Gulf of Mexico spend all or part of their lives in Louisiana wetlands.

- About 30 percent of the nation's fisheries' catch comes from these inshore and adjacent offshore waters. Its value is more than $700 million annually.

- Forty percent of the nation's fur bearing animals live here.

- Nearly 5 million waterfowl - about 25 percent of North America's breeding population - winter here.

- Eighty percent of the nation's offshore oil and gas is moved through Louisiana wetlands, as well as 25 percent of the oil and gas consumed in the United States. Wellheads, platforms, pipelines and roads, now protected by barrier islands and marshes, were not made to withstand direct wave action from the open Gulf. If this infrastructure were destroyed, people across the nation would have to pay billions in higher prices for gas and oil to rebuild.

- These wetlands buffer cities and towns across southern Louisiana from hurricanes and floods. Without them, storm surges could reach New Orleans, Lake Charles, Houma and LaPlace, threatening thousands of lives and costing billions of dollars in damage.

Sponsoring Wetlands

In addition to soliciting federal funds and public support for its $14 billion campaign to restore coastal Louisiana, the state is soliciting private money and endorsement as well.

"It's essential that the rest of the country understand the fragility of what we're dealing with here," says King Milling, president of Whitney National Bank and a member of the Governor's Commission on Coastal Restoration and Conservation.

Not surprisingly, Shell Oil Co. has come on board early with a $3 million three year underwriting grant to help raise public awareness of the threat to the state's wetlands.

"With over 2,500 employees and significant infrastructure, Shell has a major stake in Louisiana," says the company. "Besides operating major chemical and oil products manufacturing and refining facilities, Shell maintains a significant pipeline transportation infrastructure that helps supply the nation's energy needs. Protecting this natural environment makes good business sense."

In addition, Ducks Unlimited has committed to investing more than $10 million to aid in wetlands restoration and McIlhenny Corp., has placed the "America's Wetland" label on Tabasco bottles to help generate public concern.

"We are surrounded by coastal wetlands, which we don't need to get any wetter," says McIlhenny, whose factory is on Avery Island, just south of New Iberia.
 

In addition to BASS, other organizations supporting the America's Wetland project include Environmental Defense, Louisiana Nature Conservancy, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, Coastal Conservation Association, Council for a Better Louisiana, and Restore or Retreat.

The Drilling Factor

Wells and pipelines constructed in Louisiana's wetlands to provide the nation with oil and gas have been just as beneficial as the levees built to reduce flooding.

And possibly they, too, have contributed to the loss of those wetlands.

"From a scientific standpoint, the evidence is pretty compelling," says Robert Morton, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey.

"You look at the oil and gas production curves over the last 70 years and they correlate pretty well with the subsidence curves. And the geologic history does not indicate why that area should subside so rapidly when it hadn't before.

Morton says that drawing oil and gas to the surface creates an area of low pressure underneath, which sometimes prompts the land to sink, often over a wide area. In addition, he explains, drilling often causes shifting along fault lines, contributing to sinking in localized "hot spots."

The geologist contends that the greatest rate of wetlands loss occurred during the 1960s and 1970s, when the most oil and gas were being withdrawn.

With the decline in production, the average rate of destruction also has slowed, from 35 to 40 square miles per year to about 25 during the past 20 years.

If Morton is right, the future looks bright for restoration efforts, since one of the major factors in wetlands loss already has been addressed.

"It's an important question that needs to be resolved," says Karen Gautreaux, an executive assistant for Gov. Mike Foster.

"If the science indicates this is something caused in recent times by extraction of minerals, and it looks like the activity has peaked and we're moving toward an equilibrium, that's a lot more hopeful for the restoration of the coast."

Wetlands Loss List

Unless corrective measures are taken, America's Wetland will be going … going … gone.

- Forty percent of the nation's wetlands are in Louisiana, with that state sustaining 80 percent of the annual loss.

- Since 1950, nearly 2,000 square miles of Louisiana wetlands - an area nearly twice the size of Rhode Island - have disappeared.

- By 2050, another 1,000 square miles could be lost.

- Between 25 and 35 square miles are destroyed annually.

- A wetlands area the size of a football field disintegrates about every 15 minutes.

- Ninety percent of the Gulf Coast now is less than 3 feet above sea level. By 2050, saltwater could be 1 foot higher along the Louisiana coast, forcing evacuation of many communities and turning New Orleans into a besieged, oceanfront city.

For More Information

To find out how you can help save America's Wetland, visit the official website at www.americaswetland.com, or call 866-4WETLAND (493-8526). Also, check out www.crcl.org, the Web site for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

advertisement

advertisement