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Losing Ground

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GANNETT NEWS SERVICE SPECIAL REPORT

Losing Ground

Wetland’s demise ripples across nation

Above: Crisscrosing oil and gas pipeline and navigation channels in Bastian Bay's marshes add to Louisiana's wetland woes by allowing saltwater and tidal flows from the Gulf of Mexico, killing marsh grass which causes soil to wash away. Jim Hudelson/The (Shreveport, La.) Times

Louisiana’s vanishing coast hurting economy

By DENNIS CAMIRE
Gannett News Service

ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. — The land is rapidly vanishing and the open water is growing here and throughout Louisiana's coastal wetlands, a nursery for a quarter of the nation's seafood, a critical supply link for a third of the country's energy and home of the rich culture of the Cajuns.

"I was born over there," Michel Dardar said, pointing to a spot about 500 feet from his weather-beaten home in this island community that is shrinking in size and population. ``See over there? We used to plant a garden. We had a good crop of potatoes, all kinds of vegetables, but now it’s all water.’’

Dardar has spent all of his 74 years here, working on dredge boats cutting oil and gas exploration canals, building ships, fishing and oystering. "I don't want to move,’’ he said.

But Dardar and tens of thousands of others in the sole of Louisiana's geographically shaped boot are faced with that grim reality as the Gulf of Mexico consumes more and more of the land.

Scientists estimate that roughly half the wetlands in the contiguous United States has been lost to farming and development since the late 1700s. But Louisiana's coastal wetlands haven't been transformed to other uses. They've vanished.

The size and speed of the loss are breathtaking.

About 24 square miles of Louisiana wetlands disappear every year. Since 1932, the gulf has eaten nearly 2,000 square miles — an area roughly the size of Delaware. That’s the equivalent of about half the coastal wetlands along the entire Atlantic Seaboard.

And the impact of that loss could be felt far beyond Louisiana, drastically reducing the fish and shellfish on Americans’ tables, gasoline for their cars and natural gas for their homes.

The causes are complex, some man-made like the levees that control Mississippi River flooding while choking off sediment that sustains the delta’s wetlands, others natural like the compacting of wetland soils.

The proposed solutions to protect the remaining 5,800 square miles of wetlands are just as complex — and costly. Big business, state and federal officials, scientists and others are working on a massive plan — costing up to $14 billion and taking decades to finish — to stop the loss and restore some of the eroded marsh.

If nothing is done, said Enrique Reyes, a University of New Orleans assistant professor working on the plan, "the other thing is to kiss New Orleans goodbye.’’

Ecology, economy under siege

Louisiana’s wetlands are a stewpot of some of the nation's favorite seafood delicacies — shrimp, blue crab, redfish, crawfish and oysters.

Altogether, the state's commercial fishing industry caught 1.2 billion pounds of fish and shellfish in 2001. That's about 27 percent of the nation's catch by weight, excluding Alaska and Hawaii, with a dockside value of $342.7 million.

Three-quarters of the northern Gulf of Mexico's fish and other aquatic life depend on the state's wetlands for survival. The marshes provide shelter for their young and produce food for larger species such as yellowfin tuna, red snapper and swordfish.

The wetlands also are a refuge for millions of birds and butterflies that live in or pass through the region on migratory routes to Central and South America.

Man’s creations are threatened by the eroding land, too.

More than 24,000 miles of pipelines buried in the marsh could be increasingly vulnerable to the destructive power of gulf storms. Those pipelines carry natural gas, crude oil and refined petroleum products from production platforms in the coastal area and offshore to refineries in Louisiana, Texas and the Midwest for use by Des Moines, Iowa, gasoline stations or Indiana farms.

"As the coastline has receded and disappeared, the size of the surge and waves has increased enormously," said Jack Caldwell, secretary of Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources. "That is going to tear up these little (oil and gas) platforms that were built in bay conditions.’’

Also at risk is the Greater New Orleans port system, which handles more cargo tonnage than any other in the nation.

Bayou Lafourche, an old river channel cut off by a dam in the early 1900s, is losing the lush marsh that once graced its banks. Water may soon engulf Louisiana Highway 1 and cut off Port Fourchon, which services many of the 600 offshore oil and gas platforms nearby.

The gulf has already broken through to the intracoastal waterway, threatening barge shipping on the Louisiana section of a 1,100-mile canal from Apalachee Bay, Fla., off Florida‘s panhandle, to Brownsville, Texas.

"If we don't do something about it, the barges will be exposed to gulf conditions and it will stop traffic or slow it down," Caldwell said. "That economic cost will be enormous."

The value of the infrastructure at risk is estimated at $100 billion by the coalition of government, business and environmental groups working to stop the erosion.

The Shell Oil Foundation has contributed $3 million to spread the word about the looming disaster.

"It is an absolute crisis,'' said King Milling, president of Whitney National Bank and chairman of Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster's coastal commission. "It's a crisis both in terms of the nature of the threat; it is a crisis also because time is of the essence."

The loss of wetlands exposes not only pipelines and ports to the full fury of storms, but also homes, businesses and churches.

"It is disappearing,’’ said Dardar, pointing across the road to water almost surrounding a house on the edge of Isle de Jean Charles, about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans. “We can see the land is gone right now.’’

New Orleans averages 5 feet below sea level in some places. It is protected by an extensive network of levees and pumps. But as miles of protecting marsh disappear, residents of the city and its suburbs — wedged between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain — become more exposed to hurricanes.

Crisscrossing pipeline and navigation canals have allowed saltwater intrusion into the formerly brackish and freshwater marsh, killing the grasses, shrubs, willows and oaks that held the soil in place. The canals also exposed more land to the eroding tides.

But the major problem is that the federal government's effort to tame the Mississippi River to prevent disastrous floods and ease navigation cut off the life-giving flow of fresh water and an estimated 160 million tons of sediment to the wetlands and barrier islands.

"In controlling the Mississippi River, we created the problem," said Clifford Smith, president of T. Baker Smith & Son, a civil engineering firm based in Houma. "It seems to me we should use the river to help solve the problem."

Restoration effort massive

By 2050, the state will lose another 700 square miles, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"You're living on borrowed time today," said Fred Caver, deputy director of civil works for the Army Corps of Engineers. "You have until the next big storm zeroes in on coastal Louisiana directly."

A main feature of the wetlands restoration and rehabilitation plan being put together is to divert up to 200,000 cubic feet a second of the Mississippi River down a 60-mile channel to feed the existing marsh and build two new deltas in Terrebonne and Barataria bays. The plan calls for at least 15 smaller river diversions.

Dozens of other projects would involve closing some pipeline and navigation canals or installing locks to keep out vegetation-killing saltwater and using dredged material to create marshes and restore barrier islands.

The estimated cost of the plan is $14 billion. By comparison, the effort to restore 2.4 million acres of the Florida Everglades is estimated to cost about $8 billion, with the federal government paying half.

Louisiana officials say they, too, will need federal help for their wetlands, which have gotten far less public attention despite the potential economic and environmental costs to the rest of the nation.

"The wetlands belong to the whole country in the sense that the products that we produce are utilized through the whole country,'' said Sen. John Breaux, D-La., a Cajun who grew up in the state's southwest wetlands and has been involved in restoration efforts for decades.

"It's not just Louisiana wetlands," he said. ``It's America's wetland.''