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Louisiana's disappearing wetlands

In the Louisiana bayou country southwest of New Orleans, Donald Landry sits in the drugstore his family has run for 55 years and wonders how much of the marshy lands that make up his surroundings will be left for his children, and their children, to live on and enjoy. ``If Iran came and took 40,000 acres of land from Louisiana, we'd have a war tomorrow,'' says Mr. Landry, a pharmacist and civic activist in Terrebonne Parish (county). ``Yet we're giving up that much of our land every year, and very little is being done about it.''

The land Landry describes is part of the 5 million-acre Louisiana wetlands, which make up nearly half of the United States' total wetlands area. It is considered by many scientists, economists, and environmentalists to be an irreplaceable national treasure.

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Yet it is being lost at the rate of 50 square miles a year, the victim of erosion, salt-water intrusion, and interrupted natural replenishment. Some of the loss is due to the subsiding of naturally unstable sedimentary formations, while slowly rising global sea levels are also partly to blame. But mostly it is the result of human activity.

The region supports the largest fishery in the United States, producing more than 1 billion pounds of fish and shellfish a year. Nearly half of all the birds in North America winter here, while Louisiana accounts for better than one-third of the nation's fur harvest. In addition, the delta's barrier islands and wetlands provide a lifesaving buffer against fierce gulf storms to the more than 1 million people living in the coastal region.

``It's an unparalleled disaster,'' says Oliver Houck, a law professor at Tulane University and former general counsel of the American Wildlife Federation. ``We've had nothing like it in the United States.''

More than 1 million acres have been lost to the gulf since the turn of the century, but accelerating land loss could doom another million acres by the early 21st century. ``Unless something is done soon, we will be talking about the islands of New Orleans, and Morgan City, and Houma,'' adds Mr. Houck.

Next week Houck will be joined by environmentalists, scientists, state officials, and members of the Louisiana congressional delegation in unveiling an action plan to at least slow the land loss. Simultaneous news conferences are scheduled for Wednesday in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Washington to launch a plan advocating steps to undo man's deleterious effect on the wetlands.

Among the steps to be recommended are massive diversions of Mississippi River water into the wetlands to push back intruding salt water and renew the process of sedimentation that built the wetlands; steps for rebuilding the badly eroded barrier islands; and provisions for repairing damage caused by decades of industrial development.

``Restoring even part of these lands will take steps that will cost billions,'' says David Chambers, chief of the coastal protection section of the Louisiana Geological Survey. ``But the consequences of not doing it will cost a lot more.''

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For 7,000 years the Louisiana wetlands were built up between present-day Texas and Mississippi by the erratic pendulum swing of the Mississippi River over a 160 mile wide area. The river, the third-largest in the world, drains 42 percent of the continental US and parts of Canada, carrying with it some 300 million tons of sediment a year, the wetlands' primary building block.

But over the last century levees have been built to keep the mighty river from flooding its banks, and channels have been dug to maintain and enhance the river's navigational value. As a result, the tons of sediment that once built up the delta are now sent out over the continental shelf into deep Gulf of Mexico waters.

Worse, scientists believe, are the tens of thousands of miles of canals that have been cut into the wetlands to facilitate navigation and, since World War II, oil and gas exploration. According to some estimates, nearly 90 percent of the more recent land loss may be the result of these canals, which accelerate erosion and usher plant-killing salt water into fresh-water marshes. When the plants and their extensive root systems die, they give way to open water.

Micky Duplantis, who lives in Chauvin, south of Houma, worked for 36 years in the oil and gas industry, and watched many such canals being dug. ``I can remember when you used to go up the canals and have to climb up the banks and walk across the land to reach a rig. But now there's no walking across that land,'' he adds, ``because it's all water.''

Scientific studies have shown that every mile of canal dug in the wetlands causes 10 times as much land loss.

Included in the proposed action plan are requirements that oil and gas companies greatly reduce canal digging, using instead less disruptive means of reaching their installations, such as helicopters and hovercrafts. Another proposal is for a pipeline user fee that would be levied on the offshore oil and gas industry, where a growing percentage of Louisiana's oil production is located. Proceeds would be used to create a wetlands trust fund to begin repairing the damage caused by 12,000 miles of oil and gas canals.

There is little optimism that more stringent or costly regulation of the oil industry will be forthcoming soon, however. Mr. Landry notes that ``oil made Houma the boomtown it used to be,'' and was once responsible for three-fourths of the region's jobs. ``It's what people think of when they think `good times,''' he says, ``so anything - anything - that could be perceived as interfering with their economic well-being, especially when 1 of 5 are already out of work, is going to be viewed very harshly.''

There is generally greater hope for the eventual diversion of Mississippi River waters. The US Army Corps of Engineers already has a number of diversion projects on its drawing boards, and Houck notes that Louisiana's freshman US senator, John Breaux, has already filed legislation calling for major federal outlays for such projects. Support is also expected to come more easily for barrier-island rebuilding projects.

Yet many marshland experts and residents alike say the most promising development for the wetlands' future may be a return to traditional livelihoods in the wake of the oil downturn. Residents are returning to their fathers' fishing nets, and alligators, no longer an endangered species here, are being hunted again.

``Last year there were 100 [fishing] boats along this bayou,'' says Duplantis, ``and right now there are 30 more being built.'' The hope is that if more people depend on healthy wetlands for their income, the public cry for saving them will grow louder.

``Fishing and seafood production were the primary industries before, and they will be again, and that will help,'' says Wilma Dusenbery, who runs ``La Trouvaille,'' a small lunch kitchen along Bayou Petiti Caillou.

A Cajun like most of her neighbors, Mrs. Dusenberry says the Cajun people are partly at fault in the wetlands' demise. ``We have a history of apathy, of low education, and of living for what you can get today,'' she says. ``There's been little thought for what is so obviously happening all around us.''

She says her own interest in the erosion stems not only from the fact that her restaurant has been surrounded by water more than once in recent years, but also from her concern that, along with the wetlands, a way of life is being lost.

Part of a Cajun singing group with her eight sisters, Dusenberry quotes one of the songs the family sings: ``We have found paradise in the south of Louisiana.'' Looking at the swamp that rises behind her house, she adds, ``I just hate to think about that paradise going away.''

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