Louisiana: Downstream Deadzone
"Louisiana’s wetlands are twice the size of the Everglades National Park, funnel more oil into the US than the Alaskan Pipeline, sustain one of the nation’s largest fisheries, and provide vital hurricane protection for New Orleans. And they are disappearing under the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of 33 football fields a day.”
- National Geographic, 2004
We flew the night before from St Louis, MO to New Orleans, LA to continue exploring water stories for the US leg of the Expedition. And yes, it had become clear to us that there are several critical storylines related to the Mississippi River.
We followed the red thread of one such tale to the mystical Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve in Barataria, where approximately 30,000 acres of wetlands have been tenuously protected from the fate that has devastated the other 3.5 million acres of the Mississippi River delta. Those have been “engineered” out of existence.
The rugged National Park Service guys took us out on swampboats, the kind you’ve likely seen in movies—open steel hull, tall seat in the center, and single, massive fan-like engine at the rear that allowed us to hover over the marshes like a dragonfly. We moved through a watery world painted eighteen subtle shades of green: a layer of neon algae carpeting the bayou; cypress trees reaching skyward surrounded by stump-like roots bending two feet out of the water known as their “knees,” eerie pale moss dangling from branches. We glided effortlessly through areas of thick chartreuse grass that looked impassable to the unpracticed eye but actually floated atop the water. As we tore through the marsh, blades of grass whipped our bare faces and arms, leaving us covered in a fine layer of sticky sap.
We saw numerous alligators along the riverbanks peering suspiciously through their bubble eyes, dipping below the surface when we ventured too close. Birds called out from trees and brush. Geese flew overhead. Ducks meandered in and out of the swamp grass. A water snake slithered past. Here and there, we spied evidence of humanity: abandoned fishing and hunting camps, mostly, but also the occasional refrigerator someone had illegally dumped (this is apparently a big problem in Jean Lafitte.) A few fisherman glided past on their boats, giving a cheerful wave. Other that that, it felt forgotten, as though a dense cloud of peaceful slumber had descended upon the swamps. We were placed under a black magic spell of hushed wonderment.
Tragically, this land is disappearing—and disappearing fast. So fast, in fact, that if you buy a map of the coastline of Louisiana, it’ll be no good just five years from now. Our guide David Muth, the Chief of Resource Management for the park, told us that we have only ten years left to save the wetlands of the Mississippi River Delta. After that, he said, the ecosystem will have reached a tipping point: the damage to the floodplains caused by human interference will be irreversible.
The wetlands serve as more than a relaxing place to hunt, fish, and birdwatch. They also filter harmful chemicals out of the water, work like speed bumps for hurricanes, and play a critical role in supporting the land structure of all New Orleans. Without them, and with the compounding effects of climate change causing sea levels to rise, New Orleans might very well sink or be blown away into oblivion. If land loss continues at the current rate of 34 square miles per year, Louisiana will shrink another 700 square miles by 2060.
What is the cause of this ecological mess? Channels, levees, locks and dams separate over 90 percent of the Mississippi River south of St Louis all the way to New Orleans from its floodplains. People have been busy constructing such water management devices since the French first settled the region in 1720. But they interfere with the delta’s natural regulation of water flow: three miles of wetlands can reduce water storm surge height by a foot. In addition, jetties extend far out into the Gulf of Mexico to ensure a channel wide and deep enough for barges to travel up the Mississippi River. But these same jetties carry sediments out to sea that otherwise would be forming new land to help offset the loss of old land.
What is the solution? “Piecemeal efforts will not work. We must look at the wetlands systems as a whole,” said David, his white hair reflecting the hot sunlight. He suggested freeing the river from many of its constraints, setting it loose to flood, deposit sediments, and retreat as it did long before humans interfered. The jetties must be deconstructed, businesses and even people displaced to make room for the Mississippi River to build itself a new delta.
Sacrifices must be made, David told me. “If not, all this will be gone in 100 years.” He shrugged his broad shoulders and smiled impishly. “You might have to crab somewhere else, but it’s better than not crabbing at all.”