>>Saving the Mississippi/Wetlands
The Last Line of Defense
There was almost nothing natural about the so-called worst natural disaster in U.S. history. New Orleans was inundated because of the very river manipulations that were supposed to save it. One thing is clear: The only flood protection that ever worked is wetlands.
By Ted Williams
There were no explanations in the city—just one story of human tragedy endlessly repeated in endless variation. Lessons? Maybe, but only old ones previously ignored. The smashed houses, the litter-draped vegetation, the smoke of burning wreckage rising from all compass points into the windless January morning gave New Orleans the look of Stalingrad under siege. I left the wounded city behind me and pushed south toward bayou country—past impenetrable stands of bald cypress, tupelo gum, and swamp maple, paying scant attention to the bare trees until I noticed their peeling bark and realized they had drowned years earlier.
Save for the overturned boats and windrows of buried crab traps, all seemed well in the coastal marshes. South of the historic Cajun city of Houma—“the Venice of America”—oystermen steered their barges down a maze of bayous, lagoons, and canals, worked their leased beds in brackish lakes, stacked their fragrant catch in burlap bags. Herons, egrets, and all manner of shorebirds stalked spoil banks and mudflats. Brown pelicans skimmed low over open water, and white pelicans bobbed against distant islands like clumps of foam. Undulating clouds of pintails, teal, gadwalls, scaup, mallards, and mottled ducks wafted over shimmering horizons. Stingrays ghosted across shallows, roseate spoonbills methodically swished their beaks, and redfish, some half out of the water, hunted crabs. In deeper sections dolphins herded mullet; diamondback terrapins eased to the surface, snatched back their sharp heads, then paddled furiously; and, visible only as vague yellow splotches in the mud-stained water, black drum the size and shape of suitcases plucked oysters and crushed them in their mighty gullets.
Like all the marshes I inspected in Louisiana, which together comprise at least 40 percent of the coastal wetlands left in the contiguous United States, this one seemed to go on forever. And that has been part of the problem. In the early 1970s a team of Louisiana State University scientists discovered that the state’s wetlands were being eaten away by wind and tide as well as by levees, floodwalls, oil-and-gas access canals, and the shipping shortcut called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which shunted the river’s marsh-building silt out of the delta and over the lip of the continental shelf. But the scientists couldn’t convince anyone. Aerial photos didn’t show the reference points marked on their maps because they were under water. Not until the advent of satellite imagery and computer modeling in the late 1970s did word start getting out. In his widely acclaimed book, Bayou Farewell, Mike Tidwell tells the story of watching the GPS screen in horror as the shrimp boat he’d hitched a ride on was about to careen into dry land. But there was no impact; the land that had been there when the GPS map had been made just seven years earlier was gone. The southern edge of the “endless” marsh south of Houma is retreating north at something like half a mile per year.
As the Gulf races inland, brackish and freshwater ecosystems expire. Oyster beds disintegrate along with the benthic habitat they hold in place. Muskrats, otters, ducks, alligators, snakes, turtles, frogs, and freshwater fish die. Salt pollutes groundwater, and cities like Houma have to get their drinking water from muddy bayous to the north. Forested wetlands that anchored high ground are killed outright or inundated to the point that seeds can’t germinate. Lighthouses built on shore protrude from the open Gulf. Telephone poles march down the middle of lakes. Cemeteries, built above ground because the land has always been too wet for burial, disgorge their human remains. Every half-hour the state loses an area of marsh the size of a football field, and this has been going on since about 1930, when Congress unleashed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to “floodproof” the Mississippi River.
Even before the 2005 hurricane season, many of the region’s barrier islands—the first line of defense against storms—had become sandbars. And last year’s hurricanes flattened an arc of barrier islands called the Chandeleurs, stripping away all the nesting habitat of brown pelicans, royal terns, sandwich terns, and black skimmers. In bays and channels of interior marshes, waves and tide continue to rip out marsh grass, intensifying in the ever-widening, deepening water. As the grass decays, its nutrients recycle into plankton, which is gorged upon by copepods, worms, and mollusks, which are gorged upon by shrimp, which are gorged upon by fish. Like a doomed star in its death throes, the marsh explodes with energy and new life.
Most of America doesn’t get what’s happening. After all, how can wetlands that produce about a quarter of the nation’s seafood be disappearing? With all the shorebirds one sees, it’s hard to imagine that populations of nine Gulf species dropped by half in one decade. The waterfowl I encountered in such profusion are taking on fuel from the dying marsh, the better to reproduce in prairie potholes to the north. Millions of ducks winter in Louisiana, and with their numbers building as drought eases in the Midwest, it’s difficult to generate concern about their future. You can’t see the songbird migration because it happens at night. But during the past four decades radar images indicate a major decline in the number of birds crossing the Gulf. When they hit the Louisiana shore, they are exhausted from their 15-hour flight, and some have lost a third of their weight. Every spring they have to fly farther inland, and forest species such as warblers, declining by one to three percent a year, are finding drowned trees of the sort I encountered north of Houma.
The media have repeatedly called the fate of New Orleans “the worst natural disaster” ever to befall the United States. But there was little “natural” about it. The very river manipulations that have been so hurtful to fish and wildlife enabled seawater to reach the city. Wetlands are the only flood protection that ever worked. Every 2.7 miles of marsh grass between a point of land and the sea reduces a storm surge by one foot. But Corps projects, along with gas-and-oil canals and rising sea level from global warming, have pulled the Gulf 30 miles closer to New Orleans. And partly because so much former marsh had been decreed safe for human habitation by the Corps, recently developed sections of New Orleans have sunk to more than eight feet below sea level. In the analyses by which the Corps justifies its alleged flood control, it had even listed conversion of marsh to developable real estate as a “benefit.” Congress allows it to use the same trick arithmetic today.
Still, development interests were quick to claim the tragedy could have been prevented if only the Corps had built bigger, higher, more expensive levees, as it would have done had it not been frustrated by people-hating tree huggers. For example, in 1977 enviros supposedly bamboozled a federal judge into declaring that a levee-enhancement project would have “irreparably harmed” the region. The spin-doctoring started in September 2005 when Joseph Towers, retired chief counsel for the Corps’ New Orleans district, made this statement to the Los Angeles Times: “My feeling was that saving human lives was more important than saving a percentage of shrimp and crab in Lake Pontchartrain. I told my staff at the time that this judge had condemned the city.”
In National Review Online (the dot-com version of the magazine), John Berlau of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based conservative think tank, scolded environmentalists for choosing bottomland hardwood forests over people, and claimed that in a 1997 court settlement, they had frightened the Corps into holding off on a levee upgrade until it could complete a required environmental review. Apparently the Bush administration read the piece, because it tried to goose along the disinformation campaign by sending the following internal memo to U.S. attorneys: “Has your district defended any cases on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers against claims brought by environmental groups seeking to block or otherwise impede the Corps work on the levees protecting New Orleans? If so, please describe the case and the outcome of the litigation.”
For years scientists and engineers (even some Corps engineers) had been warning that, due to faulty engineering, the levees wouldn’t hold if a major storm hit. Yet when the levees failed, Corps brass and the administration expressed astonishment. “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,” declared President George W. Bush in one of the more memorable post-Katrina statements. And Corps spokespeople proclaimed that the destruction “was much more than envisioned” and that “we knew if it was going to be a Category 5, some levees and some floodwalls would be overtopped. We never did think they would actually be breached.” But the “Category 5” hurricane now turns out to have been a Category 3.
Then there’s the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet—a 76-mile shipping shortcut from the Gulf to New Orleans that destroyed or severely damaged 20,000 acres of wetlands and that costs U.S. taxpayers $35,000 in maintenance fees for each vessel that passes through it (one per day). In addition to transporting marsh-building silt off the continental shelf, it transports storm surges to New Orleans. Computer modeling by Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center had demonstrated that the outlet would amplify flooding by as much as 40 percent. The Corps and the administration ignored the warning.
They also ignored the warning of a team led by Walter Maestri, director of emergency management for Jefferson Parish, which changed the name of its simulated hurricane from Delaney to KYAGB (for “Kiss Your Ass Goodbye”) because the 2002 disaster exercise showed that any major storm would breach the levees and kill lots of people. Finally, they ignored an exercise conducted in 2004 by the LSU Hurricane Center that predicted similar death tolls and even the gun violence seen in Katrina’s aftermath. Geologist Ivor van Heerden, the center’s deputy director, who led the exercise, made this statement to NBC’s Lisa Myers: “What bothers me the most is all the people who’ve died unnecessarily. . . . Those Corps of Engineers people giggled in the back of the room when we tried to present information.”
No state derives greater economic benefit from wetlands than Louisiana, and no state’s congressional delegation has worked harder to destroy wetlands or has grabbed more federal pork to facilitate that destruction. In just the past five years it has wangled $1.9 billion, none of which was spent on legitimate hurricane protection. The money went instead to counterproductive Corps boondoggles such as the New Orleans Industrial Canal and the never-ending dredging of the one-ship-per-day Gulf Outlet. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) has introduced legislation that would have destroyed wetlands by encouraging oil drilling sans environmental safeguards. In the mid-1990s Billy Tauzin, then a U.S. representative (R-LA), led abortive drives to gut wetlands protections under the Clean Water Act and impose “takings” provisions that would have required wetland fillers and polluters to be compensated by their human victims. During the same period, then-Representative James Hayes (D-LA), and then-Senator Bennett Johnston (D-LA) sponsored bills aptly labeled by environmentalists as the “Wetland Destruction Acts.”
In the wake of Katrina and Rita there has been no change in the behavior of Louisiana politicians. Senators Landrieu and David Vitter (R-LA) appalled every state delegation other than their own by introducing the $250 billion “Pelican Bill” (Protecting Essential Louisiana Infrastructure, Citizens and Nature), a dead-on-arrival wish list of every wasteful, destructive, make-work project the Corps ever dreamed about—from its 50-year-old proposal for a $750 million lock on the New Orleans Industrial Canal to deepening the Port of Iberia, which the Corps itself admits would provide only 30 cents in benefits for each tax dollar spent. “Congressional looting at its worst,” Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense called it. “It was insane,” says Audubon’s assistant director of government relations, April Gromnicki. “They lost almost all their political clout. Everyone said: ‘Two hundred and fifty what!’ When we met with the delegation they told us the act would include significant money for restoration. However, in the list of specific projects, you couldn’t find restoration. They said the right things, then asked for nearly every project any special interest ever tried to get for Louisiana.”
As Senator Vitter reaches for federal pork for make-believe flood control with one hand, he works against genuine flood protection with the other. The cypress swamps that have managed to survive land subsidence and saltwater intrusion, most on private land, are good at blocking and soaking up floodwater. But for privately owned cypress swamps there is only one public defense against clear-cutters eager to convert the trees, some more than 1,000 years old, to cheap garden mulch. That defense is the Corps, which has the authority to regulate development activities in these wetlands. Vitter, whose Senate campaign was heavily underwritten by the timber industry, hatched a provision to sharply limit that authority and tacked it on to the Water Resources Development Act—the funding vehicle for Corps boondoggles as well as real flood control via wetlands restoration. The amendment so enraged his Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle that the entire bill was in jeopardy for about 10 months until they finally prevailed on him to rescind the provision.
It will take lots more than even a swamp-friendly Water Resources Development Act to provide Louisiana with genuine flood protection and save the state’s fish and wildlife. But important marsh restoration is under way. I saw some of it at Audubon’s 23,560-acre Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary, 13 miles south of a fishing port and offshore-oil support base called Intracoastal City (population about 200). Hurricane Katrina had given the sanctuary a glancing blow, but Rita had swept away the main office, workshop, airboat shed, and generator and storage buildings. Only the grievously damaged manager’s camp remained.
Marshes all around Rainey had been shredded, but apart from the ancient live oak, killed by the saltwater slug, and the dried carcasses of drowned muskrats strewn about, there was nothing wrong with this one. Not an acre lost. Why?
Naturalist, hunter, angler, and Rainey Sanctuary manager Tim Vincent, 53, whose Cajun family has lived by and with these marshes since 1755, ushered me onto the backseat of Audubon’s airboat and passed me a pair of ear mufflers. We went slip-sliding over dry and wet grass, dipping sharply into hidden potholes, sashaying down narrow inlets, and planing over open lakes. Waterfowl billowed up in front of us, and nutria scuttled over mud and popped into high grass. Herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, willets, sandpipers, yellowlegs, dowitchers, snipe, and killdeer patrolled vast mudflats. Finally, we skidded sideways and stopped on an earthen dike that jutted 200 yards into a mile-long lake. This dike and dozens like it had been cooperatively built and funded by Audubon, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, and the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Save for a few cowlicks of smooth cordgrass and three-square grass, Rita had left the dike’s surface bald. But new growth would pop up again from the rhizomes, and by the fall of 2006 all dikes will be green again. Three-square grass is an especially important plant on the sanctuary, a pioneering species molded by the lightning fires that swept over coastal Louisiana before all the oil and navigation channels created so many firebreaks. Seeds sustain ducks and other migratory birds; roots hold the marsh together and feed muskrats and geese. “We try to burn half the sanctuary every year,” said Vincent. “If you don’t burn, you get climax species, shallow-rooted stuff like wire grass that corks up and floats away in storms. Most of the marsh loss in this part of the state has been a direct result of not burning.”
The dikes had reduced the influence of waves and tide so that the lakes we were on were filling in again with aquatic vegetation, rendering them a rich nursery for white shrimp, blue crabs, menhaden, weakfish, croaker, spot, black drum, redfish, and even juvenile mackerel and tarpon. Near another dike Vincent showed me a PVC pipe that six years earlier had been one yard from shore; now it was on land and eight yards from the water. This and other parts of the marsh were doing something that, in Louisiana, is utterly aberrant—they were growing.
In a narrow inlet, near one of the dams that slow tidal flow from all the old canals, I spotted the sharp eye ridge of a logy alligator. It’s unusual to see alligators in January because most are hibernating, but the storms had blown in lots of animals from less healthy marshes, and they hadn’t had time to dig dens. The sanctuary sells 10,000 alligator eggs a year (a small fraction of those produced) to commercial farms for as much as $8.50 per egg. After a year the farms are required to release 17 percent of the juveniles back into the marsh. The state’s egg-harvesting program and the resultant surge in alligator farming allowed recovery and delisting of the species by knocking down the price of hides and thereby deflating a thriving black market.
When I asked about all the nutria—aliens from South America that frequently destroy U.S. marshes—Vincent explained that they weren’t doing much damage at Rainey. But he blamed the cessation of trapping (brought on by a global boycott of fur garments) for speeding the demise of other marshes. “All the marshes around Rainey used to be managed with water-control structures for muskrat, nutria, otter, and raccoon,” he said. “Since the trappers left, huge areas of interior marsh have eroded away.” Waterfowl hunting, however, still provides economic incentive to maintain Louisiana wetlands.
Vincent parked the airboat beside the morass of broken wood and twisted metal that used to be the sanctuary’s outbuildings, and we sat on the new steps of the manager’s cabin, basking in the sun and talking about the past and future of this wild and beautiful place. Vincent had spent his life watching his beloved wetlands erode away. At times he sounded weary and discouraged, even bitter. So when I asked him what he thought would happen to coastal Louisiana, his response startled me. He allowed that marsh restoration—not the localized measures he had just shown me but major rebuilding of the entire state—was, well, probably going to happen.
Such restoration is eminently possible and technically pretty simple. It starts with plugging up the Gulf Outlet via bulldozer and dragline. If that project, now under intense debate, gets approved and funded by Congress, the Corps will get paid to unmake its own mess. But the entity that would handle a more important project, also under debate, would be the Mississippi River. The Corps would merely redirect water into an earthen guidance ditch near Donaldsonville, and the river would excavate a 95-mile channel that would split around Bayou Lafourche, spreading out, slowing, and dropping its silt north of Terrabonne and Barataria bays. In 50 years the flow of the new branch would intensify 10 times, from 20,000 cubic feet per second to 200,000, or about a third of the Mississippi’s volume. The state’s wetlands would gradually stop receding, and after about 150 years, they’d begin to accrete again.
If this or a similar diversion doesn’t happen, all other restoration, planned, hoped for, and under way, will have been for naught, and the Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary will crumble into the Gulf of Mexico along with the rest of Louisiana’s coastal marshes. Still, the kind of work I’d seen—as well as rock buttressing of barrier islands of the sort in progress along Rainey’s southern boundary—needs to be done now. It can save humans and wildlife, neither of which have time to wait for congressional debate and fluvial geomorphology.