December 3, 2010

Louisiana...Disappearing Before Our Very Eyes!

An oil/gas pipeline canal cutting through the Barataria Preserve

What if you were elected the governor of a state and your chief advisor told you that 35 square miles of your state was disappearing every year? What if you were told that by 2040, the coastline might be as far as 30 miles further inland? What if your advisor told you that your most-populus city, the 2nd largest seaport in the United States, and major economic engine (through tourism) would be even more susceptible to major hurricanes because of the loss of protection from storm surges and the dampening affect on wind speeds that the marshes provide?

Seems to me that you'd take note, you'd make it your number one mission to save your state, and you would make it your goal that not one more acre of state land would disappear.

The red areas are land that has been lost since 1932.
The yellow areas are projected to be lost by 2020.

Well, the scenario above is true. Well, except for the sense of urgency from the powers-to-be to actually do anything about it. The beauty of Louisiana's wetlands and swamps is rapidly disappearing. The combination of the lack of new-land growing silt, drainage canals, and oil/gas drilling and pipelines is sucking the life out of Louisiana and shrinking the state by thousands of acres every year.

This bottomland forest stand, already devastated by Hurrican Katrina, will be under the Gulf of Mexico in 50 years

Because the land is made of unconsolidated silt deposited by rivers into the Gulf of Mexico within the last 8,000 years, it subsides (sinks) under its own weight over time. Only new silt deposited on top of it prevents it from sinking under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But, with hundreds of dams and locks on the Mississippi River and its tributaries capturing the sediment from 41% of the continent, there isn't much new silt being deposited on these coastal wetlands.

A map showing the Mississippi River Watershed (41% of the country) and all of the dams and locks that block sediment from coming to Louisiana.

In addition, levees and canals designed to channel the waters for flood control and transportation, end up shunting the remaining silt far off into the deep waters of the gulf. Thus, there is no new sediment being deposited on these wetlands. As such, their natural subsidence is allowing sea water to infiltrate and flood the areas and the lands are disappearing.

If that wasn't bad enough, oil and gas drilling removes materials from below the ocean floor and wetland areas. When you remove those materials that were helping to hold the sediment layers up, they subside even more rapidly. This either causes the land itself to subside below sea level or causes a tilting of the surface toward the depression. This tilting speeds up the movement of water and silt draining from the swamps and rivers and causes additional erosion.

The Effects of Subsidance.
This image shows a wetland literally sinking into the sea.

Even worse, sea levels are rising with global warming. Even a few inches of sea level rise are enough to flood thousands of acres of wetlands and barrier islands with salt water.

This is YOUR federal land that is being lost so BP can profit on drilling here!

But, why should YOU care about what happens in Louisiana?

It isn't just about the bird habitat or alligators or beautiful trees. It isn't just about the most productive fish, shrimp, crab, and oyster beds in America (30% of all seafood in America comes from Louisiana) being lost. It isn't just about the loss of the rich Acadian (Cajun/Creole) cultures who live in these areas.

Red is land lost since 1932 and Green is land gained in that time.

It is also about the protection these wetlands give in absorbing the winds and storm surges of major hurricanes that periodically move through the area.

As Katrina taught us, when 1 million people live within 30 miles of the ocean at or even below sea level, they need all the protection they can get! It seems as though the lesson of Katrina is not fresh in your minds anymore (and we all know how America tends to forget its lessons). I'll have a separate post on that event soon.

I spoke to two park rangers at the Jean Lafitte NHS Visitor Center about the loss of land in Louisiana and what is being done to stop it. This is a problem that has been known about for decades, so you would expect there to be some plan in the works to stop it. Their answer "Our park will be under the ocean in 50 years, that is just a fact".

Another Oil/Gas pipeline canal in Louisiana

Wow, that was a frank and unexpected response! They said no one has given any indication that anything will be done to solve the problem. The Oil and Gas industry is King. What they say goes in Louisiana, which explains why even while oil was gushing uncontrollably from the BP well last summer and was infiltrating the wetlands and destroying the marshes, closing shrimping and fishing seasons and causing people to lose their livelihoods, the people and politicians of Louisiana were so dead set against a drilling moratorium.

Part of the 23,000 acres of Barataria Preserve that will disappear

I asked "But, aren't people angry that their state is shrinking? That their liveihoods in shrimping, fishing, and oysters are being destroyed? They are losing their hurricane protection?" That their wetlands were covered in oil?"  His answer was "they don't believe it will really happen or that it is really that bad. Remember, Louisiana's schools are 2nd worst in the nation, so critical thinking is not being well taught. Everything is focused on short-term gain without any long term planning and they are told there will be no jobs in the state without doing the bidding of the oil/gas industry".

Read this above about the succession of destruction as canals allowed an evolution from sugar cane, to logging, to trapping, to oil/gas development. Talk about pilaging the land.

They said that even if a shrimper is losing his boat because of the lost season of an oil spill, he has a brother or a cousin who works in the oil industry and wouldn't dare mess with that. Often, these shrimpers and commercial fishermen even work on the oil rigs themselves because they can't make enough money on shrimp to survive the year. This essentially means they are working against their own best interests.

The ranger also told me that the Army Corps of Engineers is now building a sea wall (miles inland from where the sea is now) just outside the park boundary. He said that the ACOE predicts this area will be under inundated with seawater within 50 years and is preparing to protect New Orleans from it. Unfortunately, Barataria Preserve will not be included in that protection and this preserve will disappear from our grasp.

But, this shouldn't just be the decision of the oil industry, the well-paid politicians, or even the people of Lousiana. Much of these lands are YOUR lands. These federal sites belong to all of the American people and we have a right to see to it they are protected and not just lost to the seas for the short-term benefits of a few rich oil executives.

It seems to me that if the people of Louisiana won't act to save their own state, maybe the federal government needs to step up and take action. They owe it to all of us, Louisiana residents or not, to protect people from themselves. Because, ultimately we end up paying for it in the end anyways. Either we are paying to rebuild cities devastated by hurricanes, moving communities about to be flooded, paying higher seafood prices, or building intricate levee and seawall systems.

Or, we can work to protect the natural processes that have created this rich land that feeds us with seafood and rice, provides us with a wonderful cultural and gastronomic heritage in a city with a long and distringuished history, and offers America's greatest ecological setting of biologically rich subtropical wetlands and woodlands.

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