About 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the lower 48 states are found in the Mississippi River Delta in Louisiana. These millions of acres of wetlands were built over thousands of years by Mississippi River floodwaters that deposited huge amounts of sediment at the river's delta.
Today these wetlands range from interior forested wetlands to barrier islands on the Gulf of Mexico and a wide array of interconnected habitats, including freshwater, brackish, and salt marshes that are home to millions of birds, fish, and other wildlife.
Almost half of the population of Louisiana lives near the coast, including in the city of New Orleans. The coast's unique culture is made up of people whose way of life is tied to the bayous and nearby wetlands, including Native Americans, Acadians (Cajuns), Creoles, and other peoples who have settled here from all over the world.
Much of its economy is tied to its coast and wetlands. The coast has extremely productive commercial fisheries, and the wetlands and wildlife draw birders, hunters, anglers, boaters, and other outdoor enthusiasts. The navigable waterways, including the Mississippi River, support shipping and transit. The offshore oil fields and refineries provide numerous jobs.
The wetlands that make up most of the Mississippi River Delta are an extremely valuable resource that provides critical services to people, called ecosystem services. These include providing seafood and wildlife for us to enjoy; improving water quality by filtering out pollutants and absorbing excess nutrients; replenishing aquifers; controlling erosion; and helping to dissipate storm surges.
The delta has a diversity of habitats—from uplands to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and everything in between, including wet forests with cypress trees, freshwater marsh, brackish marsh, salt marsh, and sandy beaches. These habitats provide homes for an abundance of migratory and year-round wildlife.
The Mississippi River Delta is where the Central and Mississippi flyways meet. It provides a place for neotropical migratory songbirds to rest and feed before or after crossing the Gulf of Mexico, and is a winter home to 70 percent of the waterfowl that migrate along these flyways, such as the gadwall, green-winged teal, northern shoveler, and snow goose.
The American alligator is a well-known resident of the Mississippi River Delta. The delta's estuaries and wetlands are also nurseries for young fish and shellfish. The delta has many plants that live only in wetlands, and they provide habitat for wetland wildlife. Some of these plants are cattails, swamp rose, spider lilies, and cypress trees.
The Mississippi River Delta also has a number of federally endangered or threatened animals—such as the Louisiana black bear, piping plover, and green sea turtle—that struggle to survive in the remaining coastal habitat.
At one time, there were extensive wetlands around New Orleans and other coastal communities that provided a natural resilience to storms. In total, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) of marshland once protected New Orleans from the Gulf with trees and marsh grasses that blocked the winds and blunted storm surges.
Today coastal Louisiana is losing 24 square miles of wetlands each year—roughly equivalent to a football field every 100 minutes. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost an area of coastal land equal to the size of the state of Delaware. If this rate of wetland loss is not slowed, by the year 2040 the coastal shoreline will advance inland as much as 33 miles (53 kilometers) in some areas.
Wetland loss occurs because of natural causes—subsidence and wave erosion—and human causes. Humans cause wetland loss with the construction of river levees, channels, canals, and dams that regulate water flows or make it easier for ships to pass through an area. Humans also drain wetlands for agriculture or urban development.
Human activities disrupt the natural balance of the wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta. Prior to human development, natural wetland loss was replenished by Mississippi River sediments and nutrients creating new wetlands. Human activities have the unfortunate side effect of causing Mississippi River sediments to go straight down the river's channel and into the Gulf of Mexico. Not only are we destroying wetlands, but we are disrupting the natural cycle that rebuilds them.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the lessons learned is that a healthy system of wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf almost certainly would have slowed down the storm and dampened the storm surge. Without natural storm buffers, breaches in levees such as those after Hurricane Katrina could become an even bigger threat. Wetlands serve as nature's first line of defense by absorbing much of damage caused by hurricanes.
Climate change is exacerbating the habitat loss felt all along the area's coast. Estuaries and coastal habitats are experiencing habitat loss from sea level rise, and warmer average temperatures are fueling more intense hurricanes.
Restoring the Delta
The National Wildlife Federation’s South Central Region covers 12 states along the Gulf Coast and into the Midwest. Our regional work focuses on protecting and restoring healthy rivers and estuaries; conserving wetlands, springs, and aquifers; protecting wildlife habitats; and connecting both children and adults with the natural world.
As part of this effort, the National Wildlife Federation is helping to protect the delta by partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Audubon Society for the Restore the Mississippi River Delta coalition to move projects in the Mississippi River Delta from plan to action. The National Wildlife Federation is also partnered with two local, in-state groups: Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Our overall objective is to ensure the river delta is safe and sustainable for people and wildlife.
Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force, United States Geological Survey
Louisiana Department of Natural Resources
United States Geological Survey
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