Elegy for the Wetlands

By Najib Aminy

Four miles of decrepit asphalt pave the road that links the small community on the Isle de Jean Charles to the mainland of Montegut, La. The broken tarmac and untended potholes along the narrow two-lane path are battle-scars from ravaging hurricanes the road has seen.

This road, once surrounded by acres of lush vegetation and marshes, is now the sole interruption to a large body of water that stretches to the horizon. Large rocks that shoulder Island Road now serve as the last defense from rising waters.

But the crumbling road isn’t what concerns Albert Naquin, chief of the small tribe of Biloxi-Chitimacha and Choctaw Indians that live on the Isle. Rather, it’s the state of the community at the road’s end.

“The biggest threat is that we’re going to wind up being non-existent and it’s happening faster and faster,” said the 63 year-old tribal chief. “I know we’re going to try to hold onto the island as long as we can, but it’s going to be gone.”

There is a physical disparity between how Naquin describes the Island he grew up on and the one he sees today. His island, he reminisces, was full of native Cyprus trees, vegetable gardens and marked by a small little canal. It’s what he called paradise.

Today, the handful of choking trees and decaying stumps that dot the skyline serve as a stinging reminder of what once was. That narrow canal—it’s now an entire open body of water. And experts say what has happened to the Isle de Jean Charles a mere snapshot of the fresco that’s Southern Louisiana wetlands—a fresco that’s increasingly being painted with watery blues.

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Over thousands of years, the free-flowing Mississippi River dropped sediment and flooded regions, resulting in the formation of marshes and land. The curves, twists and turns of the river were crucial to hashing out Louisiana’s landscape. The marshes now make up more than 40 percent of the U.S. coastal wetlands, an area of roughly 4,600 square miles.

But what took thousands of years to build has taken mere decades to dismantle. Since 1930, more than 2,300 square miles of wetlands have been eroded—an area larger than the size of Delaware. And it isn’t stopping: Close to 80 percent of wetland loss in the United States points back to the Pelican State.

“It’s like watching the Titanic go down. I mean it isn’t gradual,” says Oliver Houck, Professor of Law at Tulane University. “And the only reason that it’s not accelerating more is we’ve lost so much marsh that volumetrically, as a percentage, there’s less left to lose.”

The universal statistic used to put this into perspective is that for every half-hour, an area the size of a football field is lost—and that’s every hour, day, week, month and year.

“The crucial area of the marshes is simply getting smaller and smaller, and at this rate it will disappear,” says author and prominent ecologist Dr. Carl Safina. “And as it shrinks, the productivity of it shrinks by like amount.”
What’s disconcerting about the land loss is how the Louisiana way of life is so heavily shaped by what goes on in these marshes, or what does not.

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“The marshes are the critical nursery ground for probably trillions of shrimp and fish and lots of species as well as the feeding and wintering grounds for millions, probably, of ducks and geese and lots of other kinds of birds,” says Safina, who is the founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, an environmental organization dedicated to the ocean conservation.

The wetlands also provide room for enterprise. These nurseries also spawn the beginning of a food chain that fuels a $3 billion seafood industry, one that also includes recreational fishing. More than a third of seafood within the continental U.S. comes from southern Louisiana—shrimp, crabs, oysters and crawfish. And the coast beckons to travelers, allowing the state to rake in $9.3 billion in tourism each year.

But with disappearing wetlands comes the increasing chance of disappearing profits. “If we lose half the marshes it means that we’ve lost about half of the productivity of the marshes,” Safina says. “They are what they produce, and if they’re not there, they’re not able to produce.”

“All the little fish that spawn in our delta could cease to have a nursery,” says Foster Creppel, a local wetlands activist and innkeeper of the Woodland Plantation in West Pointe à la Hache, La. “And if that happens then they’re not feeding the fish, the tuna, and the redfish and the wahoo and everything else that’s out in the Gulf.”

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Creppel owns a piece of history—the antebellum mansion that sits on his 50-acres of Mississippi River-front property was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. That mansion, a nine-bedroom inn, is also the iconic image that is stickered on bottles of Southern Comfort whiskey. But due to the disappearing marshes, Creppel is aware of the fact that his property could be part of history for another reason—hurricanes.

“The hurricanes have done more damage now to Louisiana and this region because I think we have wetlands lost,” says Creppel. “There aren’t as many barrier islands and not as many ridges.”

Besides being lucrative breeding grounds for seafood, Louisiana’s wetlands serve a more primitive function. They act a natural shield against impeding hurricanes, not only slowing down the winds with trees and land but absorbing consequential flooding. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one acre of wetlands can store up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater.

But because of the vast deterioration of the marshes, hurricanes not only wreak more havoc, they also pose a greater threat to the wetlands themselves. When Hurricane Katrina blew through in 2005, the wetlands went with her, about eighty square miles worth. And that was just in eight hours.

“When the hurricanes come, they can blow father up,” Safina says. “The salt water can go farther in. Every time that happens, the edges of the channels collapse a little bit more and what was marsh becomes open water in a progression over time.”

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Wetlands loss was once a natural evolution that fell in line with each shift in the Mississippi River. Historically, there was an overabundance of wetland creation versus depletion. Now, times have changed. Canals, dams and pollutants have impacted the flow and quality of the Mississippi River as it bleeds into the Louisiana delta.

Man-made levees are built to protect high population cities like New Orleans from flooding. But they also starve the wetlands from rich nutrients and sediment deposits along the river’s banks. Dams set upstream dehydrate the marshes from a natural flow of fresh water, leaving acres to die to increasing salinity from creeping saltwater.

“The seas are rising, the salt is coming in, the Mississippi River that used to build and maintain this area is sediment-starved,” says Houck, who has recently authored a book, ‘Down on the Batture,’ which reminisces on what the Mississippi Delta once was like. “It’s as if we’re on short rations, you know, and we’re on one-third of the bed-lode that we used to have. Two-thirds of what built us and maintained us is now gone.”

Also, chemicals and fertilizers from farmlands in states as far north as Wisconsin and Minnesota travel all the way down to Louisiana’s fragile ecosystem, introducing harmful pollutants to an already-threatened marshland.

“Instead of creating this incredible vast, vibrant, living delta, they create a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where there’s almost nothing living on the seafloor outside the delta for about the size of the state of Maryland,” says Safina.

So when the BP Deepwater Horizon Rig exploded last April, there was much concern as to what impact the looming oil would have on this fragile area of Louisiana.

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Dave Cvitanovich is a life-long oysterman who works in Venice, La. He has a stronghold on the oyster-business, owning hundreds of acres of breeding grounds. His oysters will normally land on the plates of popular restaurants in New Orleans, some of which his family owns. A good harvest year for Cvitanovich would come out to 3 million pounds. He’s only caught ten percent of his peak catch post the blowout.

“You’ve got this oil saturated in the marsh. This oil is saturated in the mud. How do you get it out? They had miles and miles of booms, they had dispersants, this that and the other,” says a frustrated Cvitanovich. It’s hard to say just how bad the blowout has impacted Cvitanovich’s oyster beds. Oysters thrive on the right mix of freshwater and saltwater.

So when Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal ordered to open a number of diversion dams weeks after the blowout occurred, the hopes of flushing out the oil back into the ocean and away from the marshes backfired on Cvitanovich’s oysters. Unable to endure a surging amount of fresh water, many of his oyster fields didn’t survive. Cvitanovich is now left anxiously awaiting to see what’s in store for next season.

“We’re talking seven to eight months now that it happened and you step on that piece of ground [near the wetlands] and oil’s at the bottom of your shoe,” he says. “When’s the end of it? Is it this week? Next month? Next year? I don’t know, you don’t know. No one can give us an answer.”

“As bad as this blowout was, it’s nothing. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what all of oil industry giants, Chevron, Exxon, everyone of them, have done to the Louisiana coastal zone,” says Houck, who has fought Louisiana’s energy industry for nearly 30 years. “The real damage to the zone is the destruction, the active destruction of the zone with this network of canals and levees and drilling machines that have just torn it apart.”

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Houck is a former federal prosecutor from Washington D.C. whose work targeted polluters along the Potomac River. He then joined the litigation team of the National Wildlife Federation where he fell in love with another river, the Mississippi.

Witnessing firsthand the effects of Louisiana’s oil and gas companies for decades, Houck isn’t too surprised. More than 10,000 miles of canals and pipelines have been dug through Louisiana’s wetlands, facilitating better pathways and transport to and from oil reservoirs.

“The marshes are the enemy,” says Houck, commenting on how they have been treated. “We tear them up, we get rid of them. They’re referred to as ‘over-burden’ as if they were some nuisance on top of precious oil.”

And the small natural channels that were deep enough for smaller boats have now been dredged at the bottom and widened to accommodate oil-tankers, cargo ships and supply boats. “Those channels and all the cutting in the marshes has resulted in the marshes eroding over time,” says Safina. “As it’s eroded, the saltwater has gotten in further, those forests are dying back; as they die back, the freshwater swamp turns to salt marsh, and then the marsh erodes to open water, and then it’s gone.”

Oil and gas exploration has existed in Louisiana since the 1930s, and since then, Houck says, local legislators have jumped on the industry for funds. “’Kind of work together’ is much too loose a phrase. They’re one in the same,” the New Orleans professor says. “The energy industry owns Louisiana politics, and they own it every level. They own it at the parish level, the state level, the legislature, the White House, the Congressional delegation.”It’s this intimate relationship, he says, that has allowed for the carving of the Wetlands and the looming consequence.

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It would be an understatement to say that oil and gas play a big role in Louisiana’s economy. These energy industries have a $70 billion impact on the state, according to a 2007 economic study by Dr. Loren Scott, a now retired professor of Economics at Louisiana State University. Roughly $12 billion are distributed to household income for an industry that employs more than 320,000 in the state. Louisiana’s energy industries paid roughly $1.2 billion dollars, or 13 percent of the total state tax revenue, in 2009, according to Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources. Back in 1981, it paid $1.62 billion, which amounted to more than 40 percent of the state’s income.

“The oil and gas industry and the maritime industry are very powerful and they’ve been the backbone of our economy in south Louisiana, but this commercial seafood industry has also,” says Creppel. “I just don’t think we’ve had the right philosophy about harvesting and using those resources.”

That is why it’s commonplace for local residents to work both industries. It’s what Cvitanovich, an inland navigation specialist as described on his business card, does when he’s not oystering. He helps the oil and gas companies lay pipeline through bayous and estuaries. “It’s a hell of a balancing act,” Cvitanovich says, “It’s like walking on eggshells sometimes. At the same time, you’ve got to live with one. It’s just like a marriage.”

The marriage of oil and water is what has many in the region so strongly opposed to the Obama Administration’s six-month moratorium on deep-sea drilling, because it’s also seen as a ban on livelihood. “The moratorium on deepwater drilling to me was not a very wise thing to do,” says Creppel, the wetlands activist. “We need the oil, unfortunately until we get better at renewable energy, we’re going to be really dependent on gas and oil. I don’t see that changing for a while.”

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A federal program instituted in 1990 has provided a glimmer of hope for Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands. Under the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration act, Congress has paid an average of $50 million every year for marshland preservation and has spent roughly $1 billion during the 20 years since the act was enacted.

And in 2010, a $35.6 million budget request in President Obama’s 2011 spending bill was passed, providing construction and research funding to the Army Corps of Engineers to reconstruct the wetlands, the first time in history. The Louisiana governorship has its own office, the Office of Coastal Activities, dedicated to overseeing restoration, creation and redevelopment projects associated with wetland conservation.

But Louisiana’s dams, river pollutants, levees, oil and gas exploration all continue play a role to a dampening future for these wetlands. It leaves some without hope, as the realization dawns that it may be too late to save Louisiana’s marshes.

“I’m not sure any dramatic change at this point, unless it’s truly dramatic, I mean of a scale of engineering, for example, we haven’t even imagined yet, that there’s anything that can save south Louisiana over time,” says Houck. “We’re never going to get Louisiana back, not the Louisiana fathers and grandfathers knew of.”

Others are a little more optimistic about the wetlands. “Now we’ve destroyed it in 100 years. To think that we can come in and build wetlands restoration projects that rebuild these wetlands in ten years is ridiculous,” says Creppel, addressing the criticism he often hears about such projects. “It’s gonna take commitment and education, a lot of money and a lot of time.”

But it’s time that Chief Naquin and his people just don’t have.

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“If a hurricane comes, another Gustav comes, I don’t think there’s gonna be any houses left on the island,” says Naquin.

In 2000, there were 68 families related to the tribe that lived on the island, now there are less than 20 families—it’s in part to a multiple of reasons, but connected to one common problem. There’s no room on the island.

Naquin described the island to have once been as wide as five miles and seven miles long. He says it’s now a quarter of a mile in width and two miles in length, and because of that, it has become near impossible for future developments in hopes expanding his community. As a result, many tribe members move to other cities and towns and inter-marry, as he describes it, the Indian blood is going down.

It’s why he has raised controversy in his small tribe proposing the idea take the few million dollars in federal and local tax dollars to repave the road and use it relocate 13 miles inland to Bourg, La. He’s riled up many tribe members, but he remains adamant and fearful.

“If nothing is done to bring the Indian community together, we’re just going to fade away,” Naquin says. “Instead of just being Indian, we’re just going to be people.”

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