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Louisiana's Wetlands On Assignment

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Louisiana's Wetlands
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The Lost Coast

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Gone with the Water (continued)

Photograph by Tyrone Turner    
By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
Photographs by
Robert Caputo and Tyrone Turner




The Louisiana bayou, hardest working marsh in America, is in big trouble—with dire consequences for residents, the nearby city of New Orleans, and seafood lovers everywhere.



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The chances of such a storm hitting New Orleans in any given year are slight, but the danger is growing. Climatologists predict that powerful storms may occur more frequently this century, while rising sea level from global warming is putting low-lying coasts at greater risk. "It's not if it will happen," says University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland. "It's when."
 
Yet just as the risks of a killer storm are rising, the city's natural defenses are quietly melting away. From the Mississippi border to the Texas state line, Louisiana is losing its protective fringe of marshes and barrier islands faster than any place in the U.S. Since the 1930s some 1,900 square miles (4,900 square kilometers) of coastal wetlands—a swath nearly the size of Delaware or almost twice that of Luxembourg—have vanished beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Despite nearly half a billion dollars spent over the past decade to stem the tide, the state continues to lose about 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) of land each year, roughly one acre every 33 minutes.
 
A cocktail of natural and human factors is putting the coast under. Delta soils naturally compact and sink over time, eventually giving way to open water unless fresh layers of sediment offset the subsidence. The Mississippi's spring floods once maintained that balance, but the annual deluges were often disastrous. After a devastating flood in 1927, levees were raised along the river and lined with concrete, effectively funneling the marsh-building sediments to the deep waters of the Gulf. Since the 1950s engineers have also cut more than 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) of canals through the marsh for petroleum exploration and ship traffic. These new ditches sliced the wetlands into a giant jigsaw puzzle, increasing erosion and allowing lethal doses of salt water to infiltrate brackish and freshwater marshes.
 
While such loss hits every bayou-loving Louisianan right in the heart, it also hits nearly every U.S. citizen right in the wallet. Louisiana has the hardest working wetlands in America, a watery world of bayous, marshes, and barrier islands that either produces or transports more than a third of the nation's oil and a quarter of its natural gas, and ranks second only to Alaska in commercial fish landings. As wildlife habitat, it makes Florida's Everglades look like a petting zoo by comparison.
 
Such high stakes compelled a host of unlikely bedfellows—scientists, environmental groups, business leaders, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—to forge a radical plan to protect what's left. Drafted by the Corps a year ago, the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) project was initially estimated to cost up to 14 billion dollars over 30 years, almost twice as much as current efforts to save the Everglades. But the Bush Administration balked at the price tag, supporting instead a plan to spend up to two billion dollars over the next ten years to fund the most promising projects. Either way, Congress must authorize the money before work can begin.
 
To glimpse the urgency of the problem afflicting Louisiana, one need only drive 40 minutes southeast of New Orleans to the tiny bayou village of Shell Beach. Here, for the past 70 years or so, a big, deeply tanned man with hands the size of baseball gloves has been catching fish, shooting ducks, and selling gas and bait to anyone who can find his end-of-the-road marina. Today Frank "Blackie" Campo's ramshackle place hangs off the end of new Shell Beach. The old Shell Beach, where Campo was born in 1918, sits a quarter mile away, five feet beneath the rippling waves. Once home to some 50 families and a naval air station during World War II, the little village is now "ga'an pecan," as Campo says in the local patois. Gone forever.
 
Life in old Shell Beach had always been a tenuous existence. Hurricanes twice razed the community, sending houses floating through the marsh. But it wasn't until the Corps of Engineers dredged a 500-foot-wide (150-meter-wide) ship channel nearby in 1968 that its fate was sealed. The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, known as "Mr. Go," was supposed to provide a shortcut for freighters bound for New Orleans, but it never caught on. Maybe two ships use the channel on a given day, but wakes from even those few vessels have carved the shoreline a half mile wide in places, consuming old Shell Beach.
 
Campo settles into a worn recliner, his pale blue eyes the color of a late autumn sky. Our conversation turns from Mr. Go to the bigger issue affecting the entire coast. "What really screwed up the marsh is when they put the levees on the river," Campo says, over the noise of a groaning air-conditioner. "They should take the levees out and let the water run; that's what built the land. But we know they not going to let the river run again, so there's no solution."

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Special Edition
Find coverage on Hurricane Katrina and learn how you can help.
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Poll
Should the federal government spend billions of dollars to stem the tide of wetland loss in Louisiana? Cast your vote then join the Forum.

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Flashback
Flashback to 1938 when an ivorybill woodpecker jumped from its nest in a Louisiana swamp, climbed up guide J. J. Kuhn's arm, and perched on his cap.



More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Loiusiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries estimates that currently over 63,000 acres (25,000 hectares) of coastal wetlands have been demolished, or chomped, by the now ubiquitous nutria. The large, marsh-loving rodent, somewhere between a muskrat and a beaver, was brought to Louisiana from South America in the 1930s for the fur industry and has since claimed Louisiana's coastal wetlands as home. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is hoping to control nutria populations by encouraging Louisianans to trap them. And eat them.
 
Nutria meat, also called ragondin, is likened to rabbit or dark turkey meat. It is higher in protein and lower in both fat and cholesterol than beef, chicken, and even turkey. Though nutria is difficult to find on menus, the department hopes it will one day become a popular dish and has even posted recipes on its website: www.nutria.com. So remember, "Nutria: Good for You. Good for Louisiana."

—Mary Jennings
Did You Know?

Related Links
LAcoast
www.lacoast.gov
Maintained by the National Wetlands Research Center, this is an excellent site for articles, newsletters, and general background information on Louisiana's disappearing coastline and the restoration efforts to save it.
 
Save Louisiana Wetlands
www.savelawetlands.org
Find out more information about this program run by Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources.
 
Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Plan
www.lca.gov
A comprehensive site that includes history and statistics on the coastal area, land change maps, and a link to the LCA draft plan.
 
National Wetlands Research Center
www.nwrc.usgs.gov
Read factsheets, news releases, and hot topics on Louisiana's coastline and wetlands in general, from this research center of the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Bibliography
Barry, John. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. Simon and Schuster, 1998.
 
Hallowell, Christopher. Holding Back the Sea: The Struggle for America's Natural Legacy on the Gulf Coast. HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
 
Streever, Bill. Saving Louisiana? The Battle for Coastal Wetlands. University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
 
Tidwell, Mike. Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast. Vintage Books, 2004.

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NGS Resources
Swain, Christopher. "Then & There." National Geographic Adventure (September 2002), 42-3.
 
Tourtellot, Jonathan B. "The Wealth of Marshes." National Geographic Traveler (July/August 1996), 24, 26-7.
 
Rinard, Judith E. "Down by the Riverside Supersize." National Geographic World (October 1993), 15-22.

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