Saving the Bayou

As Salt Water Rises, Cajun Country Looks to the Mighty Mississippi

On the boardwalk at Louisiana’s Barataria Preserve, the prehistoric quiet of the swamp muffles the sound of vehicles passing on a nearby highway. I stand listening to palmetto blades rustling like scratchy wind chimes. Green water snakes sun themselves on islands of water lilies. Grey lizards scramble on the boardwalk built along roots of moss-bearded cypress.

A century of navigation, mineral mining and oil and gas activity has left the Louisiana coast cross-cut by canals and spoil banks, threatening a remarkable and delicate swamp ecosystem.Coalition to Save Coastal Louisiana

Here in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, 15 miles south of New Orleans, land meets water, sunlight splinters through leaf canopy, great white egrets bob for minnows, alligators float log-like in peat-dark bayous. Life in the swamp has gone on unchanged, a repository of wild, predatory beauty, for centuries. Yet Louisiana’s wetlands are living on borrowed time.

Everywhere, crisscrossing the coastal lowlands, are thousands of manmade canals that cause the marsh to soak up salt water like a giant sponge. Outgoing tide carries off soil and sediment. Levees built to protect New Orleans from spring floods have kept the river from depositing alluvial soil and rebuilding the lowlands. Unless drastic improvements are made soon, geologists predict that the wetlands of Louisiana—roughly everything south of Interstate 10—will be submerged within a century. Nothing short of diverting the flow of the Mississippi River can sustain this invaluable ecosystem.

“Louisiana is already at an almost dysfunctional stage,” warns David Muth, resource manager for the Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. “Because of development—roads and canals—we’ve completely altered the basic hydrology. When it rains, the water goes to the Gulf much more quickly than it would otherwise. And when a storm-tide or south wind-tide blows salt water in, it gets farther into the basin than it would naturally. So we’re already seeing, and have been seeing for 50 years, a very rapid land loss.”

What is at stake is nothing less than America’s most productive estuary system, a giant fish nursery and rookery for thousands of species. It extends westward to the Atchafalaya River, forming a big triangle 100 miles wide, bordered by the two rivers with the Gulf of Mexico at the base. “All the fish that inhabit the Gulf spend some part of their life cycle here,” explains Kay Radlauer, president of the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary, “so it’s important for all coastal fishing from Texas to Florida. Much of the seafood people are eating in other parts of the country comes from here. This area also provides other resources such as oil and gas.”

The wetlands consist of seven zones, all of which are being narrowed, pushed inward, says Muth, “and the total amount of wetlands is diminishing. Yet if we get sea level rise on the order of some of the predictions, then south Louisiana, including its cities and infrastructure, probably will become untenable. In my opinion it’s still salvageable, but it will take a lot of money and political will to make some big changes.”

Re-establishing permanent freshwater flooding that will drive out the encroaching salt water is one of the long-term goals of the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force, made up of representatives from five federal agencies and the governor of Louisiana. Over the next 20 years, 62 approved projects will address wetland loss in nine coastal hydrologic basins along Louisiana’s coast, affecting 73,000 acres of threatened wetlands. Also working to turn the tide are a patchwork of private, state and governmental organizations, including the Alliance for Affordable Energy and the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

Passed by Congress in 1990, the Breaux Act (Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act), covers all of the United States coastline, but the state of Louisiana, facing disastrous wetlands loss, receives 70 percent of total funding. Unfortunately, one large-scale restoration project alone can cost more than $200 million, and the monies provided annually thus far fall short of the $14 billion needed for “Coast 2050,” a comprehensive plan to restore coastal Louisiana, and achieve no net loss of wetlands by the year 2050. If the situation remains unchecked, Louisiana will lose an area of wetlands the size of Rhode Island.

The Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary Foundation is also studying drainage projects, “to divert water back out to rebuild the marsh and restore nutrients,” says Radlauer, spreading an aerial map on a counter in Lafitte, Louisiana. Radlauer places her palm on the map showing the Mississippi’s meanderings. Dry, orange deltas—once wetlands until the river bypassed them—fit her hand exactly where the river previously filtered into the marsh in five channels. “The plan is to flood these dry deltas,” she explains, “and bring them back to life.”

As we talk, a tape of the Neville Brothers is playing over a speaker system. Lafitte is Cajun country, home of po-boys, gumbo and jambalaya. Mardi Gras is a couple of weeks away and green, gold and purple decorations can be seen on houses along Highway 45. The wetlands are deeply rooted in French and Spanish custom—the descendants of Acadians who migrated here from Nova Scotia in the 18th century make their living from the sea.

“Our people here troll for shrimp as their main livelihood,” says Dale Ross, of Lafitte. “Over the last 50 years they have had, and have gotten used to having, two shrimp seasons. The white shrimp season traditionally was the only season they had, but now, because of salt water intrusion, there is a brown shrimp season [deep water shrimp]. If we are successful with the fresh water influx programs they will lose the brown shrimp season entirely. They are willing to accept that, because if the salt water situation is allowed to continue, the life we know will come to an end.”

The Breaux Act paved the way, but billions of federal dollars will be needed for the massive project of diverting this great river. Riverboat pilot and legendary author Mark Twain, when his steamboat reached the mouth of the Mississippi, reportedly remarked, “Boys, it’s a success.”

A hundred years from now, will we be able to say the same?

“I am very hopeful,” says Muth. “I see literally billions of dollars being spent every year to restore South Florida and the Everglades wetlands system. However, I think if people knew that the lower Mississippi River and adjacent wetlands are far more productive than the Everglades, they would be willing to step in and spend the kind of money that’s needed.”