Air Date: Week of December 31, 1999
The rich and vital wetlands south of New Orleans are disappearing faster than almost anywhere in the world. While the state struggles to find a way to stem the erosion, local residents are taking matters into their own hands -- literally. They’re donating used Christmas trees to help save the wetlands. Living On Earth’s Jesse Wegman reports.
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth. Millions of Americans will toss their Christmas trees out on the curb this week. But in Louisiana, they'll be tossing them into the water in an attempt to save the state's fragile coastal ecosystem. Every 15 minutes, an area of wetlands the size of a football field disappears, and this in a region that supports two thirds of the state's population, the nation's largest fishing industry, and provides up to a quarter of the country's oil and natural gas supply. Decades of mineral extraction and levee construction have seriously altered the nature of coastal Louisiana. While the state scrambles to put a recovery program into place, some citizens have been coming up with inventive ways to fend off the rising tide. From Jefferson Parish, Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman has our story.
(Boat motor runs)
CORMIER: That's a shrimp boat, and that guy lives there. I mean, that's his home, which is in the true tradition of the Cajun. Live on the bayou.
WEGMAN: In Goose Bayou, south of New Orleans, Art Cormier stands on the back of a swamp boat pointing out the sites. With his white goatee and deep belly laugh, Cormier could pass for a Cajun Santa Clause.
CORMIER: Wow, look at the ducks. Shoulda brought my shotgun and my duck call, man, look at them birds in there! (Laughs) Coot, man!
WEGMAN: There's a warm, gentle breeze on the water as Cormier and his friends motor slowly through the murky waters of the bayou, inspecting the erosion of the region's wetlands. On the shore, strings of Spanish moss drape over the branches of cypress trees. Art Cormier is retired now, but he has hunted and fished these wetlands since he was a boy. He points out how much land has already disappeared as the boat enters a waterway that's maybe 200 yards wide.
CORMIER: I'm estimating this thing, this may have been 50 yards across. So you can see the difference, you see the land loss we've had. It's incredible.
WEGMAN: Stretching south from New Orleans down to the Gulf of Mexico, the wetlands of the Mississippi River Basin are one of the fastest eroding regions in the world. Since 1930 a quarter of the state's coastal wetlands, more than one million acres, have dissolved into open water. And they continue to disappear at rates of up to 35 square miles a year.
WEGMAN: As the boat pulls up to a long, straight channel of water, Art Cormier leans over and points to a key cause of the erosion.
CORMIER: Is that a pipeline? It might be.
MAN: Yeah, that's one of them.
(Climbing from boat)
WEGMAN: Over the past 50 years, straight, man-made waterways and navigation channels have seriously altered the natural flow of fresh water to the wetlands. To get at the vast mineral reserves lying just below the surface, oil and gas companies have dredged more than 10,000 miles of canals like this one.
CORMIER: A lot of times they just abandon them and leave them there. And all of this is what exasperates the loss of land, because then it gives a way for salt water to come in and kill the freshwater interior, and that's a big part of your erosion right there.
WEGMAN: Add to this the fact that the wetlands are slowly sinking. This is a natural process, and in the past it had a natural check. When the Mississippi flooded its banks every spring, its sediment replenished the wetlands. But today, levees keep the river from overflowing, so almost all that sediment, more than half a million tons every day, empties directly into the Gulf.
WEGMAN: Louisiana began coordinated efforts to protect and restore the marsh just over a decade ago, and today it uses some of the most advanced technology available. But one of the most well-known techniques was borrowed from the Dutch, who have been using it to protect their coasts since the 1920s.
SMITH: Hold on, hold on, if you can.
WEGMAN: Jason Smith, coastal programs supervisor for Jefferson Parish, pulls our boat up alongside a stretch of submerged wooden fences stuffed full with old, brown Christmas trees.
SMITH: Jeez, that's way over 1,000 feet. (Other man speaks, inaudible) Yeah, I like this one, this one's doing good.
WEGMAN: The trees protect existing marsh by acting as a wave buffer, and their tangle of branches and needles trap sediment, directing it into calmer water on the other side of the fences. This site is only a couple years old, but you can already see the results.
SMITH: See the vegetation behind it? Well, that was solid water. You can see it works. Last year I didn't see that vegetation; that wasn't there last year.
WEGMAN: Growing marsh: that's the idea of the tree fences, which after nine years hold almost a million trees. In a region known for its environmental laissez-faire, the program has inspired public awareness and involvement like nothing before, at a fraction of the cost of larger-scale projects.
HOUCK: Dead trees don't save the coast.
WEGMAN: Oliver Houck directs the Environmental Law Program at Tulane University. He says efforts like the Christmas Tree program, as well as larger projects, are steps in the right direction, but they're nowhere near enough. A major problem, Houck argues, is Louisiana's historical over-reliance on the oil and gas industries and its reluctance to make them pay for their mistakes.
HOUCK: And now it's letting the oil and gas companies walk away from the table without paying a dime towards the restoration. And these are companies that have bled Louisiana out of oil, I mean dry out of oil, for 40, 50 years.
WEGMAN: Energy companies say they already pay enough in taxes and royalties to compensate the state. And that river levees have already caused much more erosion than dredged canals ever will. For the state's part, assigning blame is not a road it wants to travel.
CALDWELL: Frankly, we don't have the time to sort out who's liable and who's not.
WEGMAN: Jack Caldwell is secretary of Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources. Whatever the primary cause, Secretary Caldwell says, Louisiana simply doesn't have the billions of dollars it's expected to cost to protect and restore the wetlands.
CALDWELL: We know how to do it. Give us the money. We will do it. Without the money it can't be done.
WEGMAN: And money isn't the only obstacle. The region's ecology has been altered so drastically, Oliver Houck says, real restoration must include full-scale diversions of the Mississippi, known as letting the river out. But wherever you try to do that, people get in the way.
HOUCK: And that's tough. You're going to have to move people. You're going to have to move towns. You're going to have to decide that this gets developed and that doesn't. And nobody has come near making those rather mega-political decisions.
WEGMAN: And, it seems, no one will be coming nearer any time soon. Natural Resources Secretary Jack Caldwell.
CALDWELL: I doubt seriously if they're going to find any major population displacements in the name of building diversions. I don't think it's a politically attractive alternative.
WEGMAN: Attractive or not, displacement is already happening. In wetlands less than ten miles from downtown New Orleans, hunters and fishers like Art Cormier have built small camps with names like Bayou Therapy and Gator Hole. Cormier points to one that's up on stilts.
CORMIER: Right here, the guy moved this camp four times, back and back and back, to try to save a place for himself. I'll show where he finally rebuilt, he give up. This camp here is not long for this world...
WEGMAN: Even in this quite enclave, the New Orleans skyline looms on the horizon. And, coastal scientists say, what's happening here is an omen for the city. If current trends continue, some say, New Orleans could one day be beachfront property. That's not far-fetched. After all, half the city's metropolitan core already sits below sea level. Without the wetlands there to absorb storm surges, New Orleans can flood in a matter of hours, as it did last fall during tropical storm Frances.
CORMIER: The Gulf is at our door right now. If we don't do anything to save that we'd just as well start building houses on stilts in New Orleans, just like you see these camps up high. Because it's coming this way, it's just moving moving moving moving.
WEGMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Jesse Wegman in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.
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