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Louisiana's Wetlands On Assignment

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Louisiana's Wetlands
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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 state's first oil well was punched in south Louisiana in 1901, and the world's first offshore rig went into operation in the Gulf of Mexico in 1947. During the boom years in the early 1970s, fully half of the state's budget was derived from petroleum revenues. Though much of the production has moved into deeper waters, oil and gas wells remain a fixture of the coast, as ubiquitous as shrimp boats and brown pelicans.
 
The deep offshore wells now account for nearly a third of all domestic oil production, while Louisiana's Offshore Oil Port, a series of platforms anchored 18 miles (29 kilometers) offshore, unloads a nonstop line of supertankers that deliver up to 15 percent of the nation's foreign oil. Most of that black gold comes ashore via a maze of pipelines buried in the Louisiana muck. Numerous refineries, the nation's largest natural gas pipeline hub, even the Strategic Petroleum Reserve are all protected from hurricanes and storm surge by Louisiana's vanishing marsh.
 
You can smell the petrodollars burning at Port Fourchon, the offshore oil industry's sprawling home port on the central Louisiana coast. Brawny helicopters shuttle 6,000 workers to the rigs from here each week, while hundreds of supply boats deliver everything from toilet paper to drinking water to drilling lube. A thousand trucks a day keep the port humming around the clock, yet Louisiana 1, the two-lane highway that connects it to the world, seems to flood every other high tide. During storms the port becomes an island, which is why port officials like Davie Breaux are clamoring for the state to build a 17-mile-long (27-kilometer-long) elevated highway to the port. It's also why Breaux thinks spending 14 billion dollars to save the coast would be a bargain.
 
"We'll go to war and spend billions of dollars to protect oil and gas interests overseas,"
Breaux says as he drives his truck past platform anchors the size of two-story houses. "But here at home?" He shrugs. "Where else you gonna drill? Not California. Not Florida. Not in ANWR. In Louisiana. I'm third generation in the oil field. We're not afraid of the industry. We just want the infrastructure to handle it."
 
The oil industry has been good to Louisiana, providing low taxes and high-paying jobs. But such largesse hasn't come without a cost, largely exacted from coastal wetlands. The most startling impact has only recently come to light—the effect of oil and gas withdrawal on subsidence rates. For decades geologists believed that the petroleum deposits were too deep and the geology of the coast too complex for drilling to have any impact on the surface. But two years ago former petroleum geologist Bob Morton, now with the U.S. Geological Survey, noticed that the highest rates of wetland loss occurred during or just after the period of peak oil and gas production in the 1970s and early 1980s. After much study, Morton concluded that the removal of millions of barrels of oil, trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, and tens of millions of barrels of saline formation water lying with the petroleum deposits caused a drop in subsurface pressure—a theory known as regional depressurization. That led nearby underground faults to slip and the land above them to slump.
 
"When you stick a straw in a soda and suck on it, everything goes down," Morton explains. "That's very simplified, but you get the idea." The phenomenon isn't new: It was first documented in Texas in 1926 and has been reported in other oil-producing areas such as the North Sea and Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. Morton won't speculate on what percentage of wetland loss can be pinned on the oil industry. "What I can tell you is that much of the loss between Bayou Lafourche and Bayou Terrebonne was caused by induced subsidence from oil and gas withdrawal. The wetlands are still there, they're just underwater." The area Morton refers to, part of the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary, has one of the highest rates of wetland loss in the state.
 
The oil industry and its consultants dispute Morton's theory, but they've been unable to disprove it. The implication for restoration is profound. If production continues to taper off in coastal wetlands, Morton expects subsidence to return to its natural geologic rate, making restoration feasible in places. Currently, however, the high price of natural gas has oil companies swarming over the marshes looking for deep gas reservoirs. If such fields are tapped, Morton expects regional depressurization to continue. The upshot for the coast, he explains, is that the state will have to focus whatever restoration dollars it can muster on areas that can be saved, not waste them on places that are going to sink no matter what.
 
A few days after talking with Morton, I'm sitting on the levee in the French Quarter, enjoying the deep-fried powdery sweetness of a beignet from the Café du Monde. Joggers lumber by in the torpid heat, while tugs wrestle their barges up and down the big brown river. For all its enticing quirkiness, for all its licentious pleasures, for all its geologic challenges, New Orleans has been luckier than the wetlands that lined its pockets and stocked its renowned tables. The question is how long Lady Luck will shine. It brings back something Joe Suhayda, the LSU engineer, had said during our lunch by Lake Pontchartrain.
 
"When you look at the broadest perspective, short-term advantages can be gained by exploiting the environment. But in the long term you're going to pay for it. Just like you can spend three days drinking in New Orleans and it'll be fun. But sooner or later you're going to pay."
I finish my beignet and stroll down the levee, succumbing to the hazy, lazy feel of the city that care forgot, but that nature will not.

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Special Edition
Find coverage on Hurricane Katrina and learn how you can help.
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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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