Swamping Louisiana

As the state's coastal wetlands disappear, at the rate of a football field every half hour, both wildlife and human lives are threatened

  • Laura Tangley
  • Apr 01, 2002

GHOST SWAMP: The skeletons of dead cypress trees are all that remain of what once was a thriving freshwater wetland near Dulac, Louisiana.

SPEEDING ACROSS the seemingly endless marsh of south Louisiana's Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, an airboat flushes flock after flock of great and snowy egrets, the birds flashing bright white against the dark cordgrass that had sheltered them. Startled by the noisy contraption, dozens of great blue, little blue and green herons also take flight. Farther away, along a quiet canal, willets, stilts, coots and spoonbills probe the muddy banks for crabs and other crustaceans, as huge metallic blue dragonflies swirl above their heads.

The scene is spectacular, yet refuge biologist Tom Hess points out that this month, September, is a slow one at Rockefeller. "You come back here in October or November," says Hess, "and thousands and thousands of birds will just boil out of the marsh."

Strategically located at the southern tip of the continent's vast Mississippi Flyway, the 86,000-acre, state-managed Rockefeller refuge is truly a haven for birds, providing winter habitat for hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl alone. Refuge marshes also house major seabird and shorebird colonies. And each spring, Rockefeller's wetlands and other ecosystems are critical to the survival of waves of hungry and exhausted Neotropical migrants--warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks and other colorful songbirds--that have just crossed the Gulf of Mexico as they head north to summer breeding grounds.

But critical as these habitats are--and healthy as they look to a casual visitor--all is not well at the refuge. A short walk from where Hess parks his airboat on the beach, he points to waves lapping against a waist-high mound of dark soil topped by a tuft of dead grass: former marsh that's been drowned by the sea. "Each year," says Hess, "we're losing between 35 and 40 feet of our shoreline." According to biologist and refuge manager Guthrie Perry, erosion has robbed Rockefeller of more than 3,000 acres of prime wildlife habitat since he arrived three decades ago.

Changeable coasts are, of course, a part of nature, and shoreline erosion is a well-recognized concern nationwide. But here in Louisiana, the situation at Rockefeller offers a glimpse of a massive coastal erosion problem that's far more severe than anywhere else in the country. Since the 1930s, the state has lost more than a million acres of the wetlands that make up the lion's share of its coast, the equivalent of a football field of marsh or swamp every half hour. Recent computer analyses predict that nearly 640,000 additional acres--an area the size of Rhode Island--will disappear by 2050. After decades of indecision and bickering over what to do to avert the crisis, state and local leaders recently agreed on an ambitious blueprint for coastal survival. Yet whether they can generate the political will and funding to implement the plan remains uncertain.

TATTERED: A healthy marsh in Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge looks little like one torn apart by oil, gas and navigation channels. Along with levees, draining and development, these channels are major culprits in wetlands loss. Among the victims are wading birds such as the great egret (above). Migratory waterfowl and songbirds also depend on Louisiana's marshes.

If it succeeds, the strategy could set an important precedent for others battling wetlands loss worldwide. But if it fails, the damage also would reach far beyond the state's borders. Home to a quarter of all wetlands in the lower 48 states--including 40 percent of all salt marshes--Louisiana's rapidly vanishing coastline is a national treasure. Its wetlands provide winter habitat to millions of migratory waterfowl--70 percent of the ducks and geese that use the Central and Mississippi Flyways. By weight, coastal Louisiana contributes nearly a third of the commercial fish and shellfish harvested in the lower 48 states, as well as 18 percent of the oil and 24 percent of the natural gas produced nationwide.

Some two million people also call coastal Louisiana home. Take away the wetlands, and this unique, culturally diverse mix of Americans loses its primary means of support and its only buffer against the devastating hurricanes and other storms that routinely pummel the region. (Every four miles of wetlands can absorb enough water to knock down the height of a storm surge by one foot.) In the words of Mark Davis, executive director of the Baton Rouge-based Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, "To us, it's not just a question of whether wetlands survive. It's a question of whether we as a community and a culture survive."

The Mississippi River created Louisiana's wetlands gradually over many thousands of years. Throughout this period, the Big Muddy, which drains water from 31 states, would overflow its banks each spring and deposit tons of the sediment and nutrients needed to build marsh. Forever seeking an easier route to the Gulf of Mexico, the river also tended to change course every thousand years or so, beginning the marsh-building process anew along another stretch of the state's 200-mile coast.

Because Louisiana's heavy, waterlogged soils eventually begin to sink under their own weight--a process called subsidence--some of the state's wetland loss might be considered natural. Yet before colonists arrived in the region, the river rebuilt most of these lost marshes.

A mighty river that routinely floods and unpredictably changes course is hardly compatible with permanent homes, farms and industries, however. Since the early 1800s, local residents have been trying to reign in the river by lining its banks with levees. Today's massive network of levees, constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and considered one of the world's great engineering feats, has indeed protected New Orleans and other communities from flooding, at least in the short term. But by preventing the deposition of sediment and nutrients once provided by spring floods, the levees also are starving the region's wetlands.

Compounding the problem, a labyrinth of canals, dug largely to exploit and export petroleum reserves, crisscrosses huge swaths of south Louisiana. By providing seawater easy access to inland marshes, these canals have killed vast amounts of salt-intolerant vegetation. Dead and dying plants in turn provide a weak storm buffer, giving waves an opportunity to wash away the soil.

GREEN REFUGE: Just south of Breaux Bridge, Lake Martin is Louisiana's largest nesting area for wading birds.


Among the most destructive canal projects is the 70-mile-long Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, known locally as Mr. Go, dredged by the Corps to provide a shortcut for ships heading down the Mississippi to the Gulf. Constructed in the 1960s, the outlet is so shallow that it quickly grew obsolete as ships got bigger; now an average of just 1.3 ships pass through it daily.

But even underused, Mr. Go wreaks havoc, spawning so much erosion that its width has expanded from 500 feet three decades ago to 2,000 feet today. Without the marshes that have succumbed to erosion, even the Corps fears the levees lining Mr. Go are inadequate to protect surrounding communities from big storms. Says Pete Savoye, president of the St. Bernard Sportsmen's League and a tireless crusader against the outlet: "We're living in a bowl. If the levees break, we'll drown like rats in a bucket of water."

Together, levees, canals and subsidence, along with draining and development, continue to take a tremendous toll. Coastal scientists estimate that Louisiana loses between 25 and 30 square miles of marsh and swamp a year, 80 percent of total annual wetlands loss nationwide.

While the problem has been recognized-- at least locally--for decades, solutions until now have been small, fragmented and ineffective. Passed by Congress in 1990, the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA) did provide some relief: up to $50 million annually over the following decade. Yet the scale of projects funded under the act remained inadequate to solve the problem.

Then in 1998, "Mother Nature gave us a wake-up call," says Davis. That September, Tropical Storm Frances dumped so much water on the greater New Orleans area that several major highways flooded and remained underwater for two weeks. Before long, Hurricane Georges also was swirling across the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to barrel right into the Big Easy. Although Georges weakened and changed course at the last moment, the experience terrified residents whose only evacuation routes were flooded.

Soon after this close call, representatives of national, state and local government agencies--including all 20 of Louisiana's coastal parishes--collaborated with scientists, environmentalists, business leaders and landowners to produce Coast 2050, touted as "a strategic plan for the survival of Louisiana's coast." According to Davis, whose organization helped draft the document, Coast 2050 is indeed different from efforts that came before it because it is broad, ambitious, integrated and, perhaps most important, the product of consensus. "This plan finally moves beyond hand-wringing to solutions," says Davis.

Those solutions, while certain to be challenging in their execution, are all simple in theory: Mimic the natural forces that originally created the wetlands--and harness their power if possible--to repair the damage humankind has done. Coast 2050's specific strategies include rebuilding barrier islands and opening holes in levees at strategic locations to allow fresh water, sediment and nutrients to replenish marsh on the other side.

Already, a handful of projects demonstrate that such strategies can work. Not far from the devastation wrought by Mr. Go, for example, what looks like ordinary marsh generates excitement among the passengers of a small boat cruising a canal in St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans. "I'm pleasantly stunned," says parish historian William de Marigny Hyland, who last visited this spot in the 1980s when it was no more than a degraded remnant of wetland. Today the area's thriving, thanks to an experimental, CWPPRA-funded project called the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion, which carries Mississippi River water under levees and releases it into the marsh.

HOME SWEET HOME: In addition to avian denizens such as the common moorhen (above), alligators, frogs and crawfish abound in Louisiana's Lake Martin.


Smiling, landowner Mike Benge nods. "I can tell the project's working," he says. "There's land where there used to be water, the marsh is firmer under foot, and alligators are abundant." According to Davis, the $26.1 million project proves that "it's possible to engineer our way out of an engineering disaster."

Still, many formidable challenges remain. One problem is that certain coastal residents have benefitted, in the short term, from increased salinity and retreating marshland. There are oyster and shrimp fishermen, for instance, "who have gotten used to being able to catch what they need in their backyards," says Benge. Without a long-term view recognizing that future shellfish harvests depend on wetlands to nurture larvae, some of them have opposed freshwater diversions such as Caernarvon--a problem compounded when the state continued to issue and renew oyster leases in areas targeted for restoration.

Yet the biggest barrier to implementing Coast 2050 is the blueprint's daunting price tag: about $14 billion. Advocates point out that Congress already has agreed to fund a similarly ambitious project to replumb the damaged Florida Everglades. Though the cost of restoring coastal Louisiana is estimated at twice that sum, NWF resource specialist David Conrad says "the cost of doing nothing would be much higher." If a big hurricane's storm surge broke through levees in and around New Orleans--a scenario many experts agree is likely--"the United States would face its most costly and perhaps worst natural disaster in history," he adds.

The good news is that if policymakers do act quickly and decisively, they'll have a substantial amount of wetlands to save. Despite centuries of loss, about 3,800 square miles of marsh and 800 square miles of swamp remain. According to Randy Lanctot, executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate that's fighting to save the coast, the state's wetlands encompass "an ecosystem so vast that it's hard for most people to comprehend." One boat ride across Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, which houses less than half a percent of those wetlands, is enough to drive his point home.

Greening the Corps

No federal agency has a bigger impact on the nation's wetlands, rivers and coastlines than does the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Since 1779, Corps projects have included 8,500 miles of levees and flood walls, more than 500 flood-control dams and 11,000 miles of inland navigation channels (above). Many of these hugely expensive projects yield questionable economic benefits at the same time they devastate wildlife habitat. In Troubled Waters: Congress, the Corps of Engineers and Wasteful Water Projects, the National Wildlife Federation and Taxpayers for Common Sense have identified 25 of the most wasteful and harmful works. Hoping to convince the Corps that it can change course and become a force for environmental restoration, NWF, through its Greening the Corps campaign, tries to steer the agency toward projects that help both people and wildlife and supports Corps reform legislation in Congress.

Laura Tangley is a senior editor for this magazine.

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