January 25, 2008
Photography by Jackson Hill
There is goodness in the mud and muck, wind and wash, the flat expanse of bulrush and salt grass, the weeping arch of sky. Percy Viosca Jr. had to keep that in mind as he slapped a mosquito into the back of his neck and resumed poling his small boat through the thickets.
“Goodness” is a word that rarely finds its way into scientific estimations or documentation. Too subjective and lacking specificity.
But confronted with the vastness, richness, earnestness and humility of the Louisiana wetlands, what word is better?
In the 1920s, Viosca, A&S ’13, G ’15, a biologist working for the Louisiana Department of Conservation, began writing what would amount to tens of thousands of words describing in technical detail the nesting patterns of turtles, the taxonomy of the Louisiana Iris and spotted bass, the farming of crawfish, and the culture of pondfish, bullfrogs, newts and snakes.
For years he lived as a creature of the Louisiana wetlands, documenting its complex, elusive story and how human activity was changing it. He observed the impact of flood control, real estate development and the canals that now crisscrossed the landscape. He charted the presence and absence of aquatic species in their habitats. He tracked the encroaching tide of saltwater into freshwater marshes.
And he was getting worried.
Reaching out of the boat, Viosca dipped a finger into the water and then touched it to his lips to check for salinity.
“Not good,” he thought.
“Not good,” he shouted, too, to anyone who would listen. At a meeting of the Ecological Society of America, held in Kansas City, Mo., on Dec. 31, 1925, Viosca rang out the old year with a cautionary account of what was happening in the coastal areas of his home state.
“Man-made modifications in Louisiana wetlands, which are changing the conditions of existence from its very foundations, are the result of flood protection, deforestation, deepening channels and the cutting of navigation and drainage canals,” Viosca reported. “Time is ripe for an enormous development of the Louisiana wetlands along new and intelligent lines. …”
Percy Viosca was a visionary and his vision embraced the fullness and complexity of life. He saw the teeming abundance and vitality of Louisiana’s wetlands, as well as its impending ecological collapse. Over the years he and others have preached the good news from the mud and sky, water and salt grass: The wetlands exist, we have not yet killed them and we may yet be able to save them.
It has been estimated that Louisiana loses one football-field worth of wetlands every 38 minutes. That’s a lot of football fields and adds up to about 25 square miles of wetlands being converted into open water each year, 1,900 square miles since 1930. As much as half that may be lost in the next 40 years. Without coastal marshes to absorb and reduce the impact of tidal surge, the Crescent City will be as naked to the angry Gulf as beachfront property. Towns along the Louisiana coast will have to be abandoned. The nation, too, would be impacted as the destruction of the wetlands protecting the infrastructure serving the oil and gas and shipping industries would put $130 billion in assets at risk.
While natural processes such as subsidence and rising sea levels have played a role, left alone, nature would compensate by distributing fresh layers of sediment deposited during yearly river flooding.
It turns out that Viosca was on target about how levee systems prevent the Mississippi and other rivers from depositing sediments that nurture and regenerate flood plains. But in 1925, he could not have foreseen the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and subsequent federal programs to raise and reinforce levees and the extent to which sediments would be channeled directly into the Gulf.
Viosca also was correct in assessing the devastating effects of dredged canals and their associated levees that change the hydrology of the wetlands and invite and trap saltwater that is so harmful to marsh vegetation. In the 1920s, however, he could not have guessed development of the oil and gas industry in the coming years would lead to the digging of 30,000 miles of canals to facilitate the laying of pipeline and navigation.
“In many ways we didn’t listen to the Percy Vioscas of the 1920s and we’ve paid a price,” says Mark Davis, director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane Law School. “But the prevailing knowledge at that time didn’t lead to the conservation of those wetlands. They were viewed largely as wastelands or that the damage would be so insignificant that it would be dwarfed by the economic benefits.”
Maybe it was the vastness of four million acres of coastal marshes that obscured its fragility. Maybe its humble landscape made it seem expendable. Maybe it too easily offered up a wealth of natural resources — 25 percent of the nation’s oil production, 30 percent of fish harvested in the Lower 48. Maybe its role as the best line of defense for New Orleans and other towns and cities against the ravages of storms and hurricanes was for too many years underestimated or not fully understood.
Now we know that every three miles of wetlands may reduce the height of a storm surge by one foot. The hurricane protection system devised for New Orleans in the late 1960s took into account the moderating effect of the 100 miles of wetlands sprawling between the city and the Gulf of Mexico, most of which are no longer there today, says Davis. The extent to which Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge forced breaches in the city’s levees is directly associated with the loss of wetlands in the last 40 years.
And as Percy Viosca would tell you, it’s not like no one knew what was happening. So how does an entire society keep fiddling as Rome burns?
“I think most people knew there was trouble on our coast,” says Davis. “But as with all big problems one of the first things we tell ourselves is that big problems must have lots of talented people working on them.”
While the science and technology to address coastal restoration and hurricane protection (goals that most experts agree should be considered inseparable) has existed for decades, we’ve never developed an adequate system through which to implement them, says Davis.
For more than 130 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been involved in planning, building and operating flood control, navigation and, more recently, coastal restoration projects in the lower valley of the
Mississippi River. The problem, says Davis, is that without the kind of intelligent oversight that Viosca called for 80 years ago, the Corps has undertaken projects assigned by the U.S. Congress and other governmental entities in piecemeal fashion.
“We’ve given three absolutely incompatible jobs to the Corps and told them to do each of these, but don’t let any of them get in the way of anything that has been undertaken before,” says Davis, who points to the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) as a stark example of this.
Only a few years before it was charged with building a protective floodwall around New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers completed a congressionally authorized project to dig a 70-mile navigation channel that connected the Gulf of Mexico to the port of New Orleans. MRGO turned out not only to be an ineffective and seldom-used shortcut, it also was an environmental disaster. Saltwater siphoned from MRGO backed into the marshes, contributing to the loss of 27,000 acres of wetlands below the city. MRGO not only decimated the natural protection that was the city’s birthright, it also acted as a funnel that provided storm surges direct access to the city.
In 2007, two years after the devastation of New Orleans by flooding from Katrina, the Corps finally asked Congress for permission to close the channel.
“It is easy to blame the Corps,” says Davis, “but the problem actually lies with the way we hand out assignments. In the case of MRGO, flood protection essentially took a back seat to navigation, and coastal restoration took a back seat to flood protection and navigation. And quite frankly, that’s still generally the rule.”
There is still time, though not much of it, says Davis, to do what is necessary to pull what’s left of Louisiana’s coastal marshes from the brink, but that will take an honest discussion of what is important to us.
Making the wrong choices has constrained the palette of available options, and when you reach a crisis point the temptation to do something often trumps the need to do something smart. |
“If we don’t make wiser decisions now we are not going to have the luxury of having our grandchildren say, ‘They didn’t know any better,’” says Davis. “This is our legacy.”
Barracuda, black drum, black tip shark, bluefish, bull croaker, flounder, greater amberjack, jack crevalle, king mackerel, lemon fish, pompano, red snapper, Spanish mackerel, sheepshead, speckled trout, trigger fish, yellowfin tuna, wahoo and white trout. The good news is that you can still launch a skiff at Hopedale, Lafitte and Shell Beach or hug the west side of Barataria Bay looking for redfish.
Oliver Houck likes fishing as much as the next guy and remembers his first trips to Pointe a la Hache down in Plaquemines Parish.
“In those days [before catch restrictions limiting size and number of fish] you measured your catch by the ice chest. Even a hack like me could catch fish,” says Houck, who heads Tulane Law School’s environmental law program and has written extensively and eloquently on wetlands and coastal issues.
Houck was general counsel to the National Wildlife Federation when he began coming to Louisiana in 1971 at the outset of a 10-year struggle to prevent the Corps of Engineers from dredging a 100,000-square-foot canal in the Atchafalaya Basin.
Over the years Houck’s has been one of the loudest voices hailing from the wilderness. In the mid-1980s, he brokered a compromise between corporate and environmental groups that saved Bayou Sauvage as a national urban wildlife refuge.
In 1983, Houck wrote a 70-page report documenting why MRGO should be closed.
“The essence of the report,” says Houck, “was you are losing a hell of a lot of real estate, that real estate is your buffer and you are going to lose flood control, and this thing is a highway for the storms.”
The report was received as “beyond the pale” and “enviros going overboard,” says Houck.
“The oil and gas industry and the state were firmly against acknowledging what was happening to the wetlands,” he says. “This was like a state secret, and to the Corps, it wasn’t happening.”
In that regard, things have dramatically changed, and that is a good thing, says Houck.
“We are finally changing our mind about the wetlands. We are finally admitting both their value and the need to do something about what’s happening to them.”
The devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita may have put an exclamation point on it, but for nearly a decade there has been an awareness growing that the collapse of the coast was not just an environmental issue, but an economic one, as well.
R. King Milling, L ’65, came to that conclusion several years before 2005’s Summer of Storms. Milling, the president of Whitney National Bank, a former king of Carnival and a partner in one of the most prestigious law firms in Louisiana, has been called an unlikely activist and the first voice from the business sector to sound the alarm for the disintegration of the wetlands.
“I think that’s an overstatement,” demurs Milling, who since 2002 has served as chair of both the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation and America’s Wetland Foundation.
In any case, Milling’s wetlands epiphany was in part conjured by the efforts of a veteran environmentalist who paid him an afternoon visit in 2000.
“Mark Davis came to my office and conned me one day,” says Milling.
Davis, who was at that time the executive director of the nonprofit Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, outlined for Milling how apathy and lack of planning was leading to the extinction of Louisiana’s wetlands.
“He gave me a song and dance about the environment, and I was sitting at my desk with a whole lot of work to do,” recalls Milling. But the work of a banker is to make sound investments and Milling realized if the “birds and fishes” were imperiled, so too, were the factories, shipyards and oil and gas facilities that his and other banks have invested in throughout coastal Louisiana.
“Finally,” says Milling, “I looked up and said, ‘This isn’t about the environment, this is about the commerce of this part of the world. About whether we will be able to function in the future.’
“And Davis started smiling at me,” Milling continues. “And I said, all right, you got me.” Milling says he is not an environmentalist, but as the point person for a campaign to educate both politicians and the general public on the state of the Louisiana coast, he often sounds like one.
“We have to save it, whether it’s because it is an asset to our economy or environmental treasure. And I do believe it is that — it is twice the size of the Everglades, over five million birds winter here every year, 75 percent of the commercial fish in the Gulf of Mexico are dependent on this ecosystem. …”
Milling could continue with the data, and he often has as he’s canvassed the state spreading both the good and bad news about Louisiana’s wetlands. His stump speech typically ends with a call to arms.
“All of us live, work and play on the very edge of this crisis,” he tells his listeners. “If we fail to
act, the single legacy that we shall leave to our children and grandchildren is a greatly diminished
Louisiana — not just in size but in value, heritage, culture, resources, commerce and history. That legacy is unacceptable.”
Oysterman, fisherman, shrimper, citrus grower, charter boat captain, teacher, lawyer, librarian. The good news is that coastal Louisiana is still thriving and supporting traditional and non-traditional lifestyles and occupations. It’s enough to give you hope, says Davis.
“The wetlands are not just a feature on the map, but have become part of so many people’s lives — whether you are a hunter, or in the oil business or a person in local government worried about the tax base leaving. I see a lot of energy and commitment out there.”
Now that everyone seems in agreement about saving the wetlands, the only challenge is in actually saving them, but as Davis says, it’s never been anyone’s job to do that.
In fact, before 1989, there was not a single Louisiana or federal agency that had coastal restoration within its mission statement.
Things began to change that year when Louisiana voters approved an amendment to create the Wetlands Trust Fund by setting aside a portion of revenue derived from the state’s oil industry to rebuild wetlands. In 1990, the federal government appeared to get on board as the U.S. Congress enacted the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act that has funded small-scale restoration projects. It was an important step in the right direction but lacked the scope and vision necessary to have significant impact on wetlands loss.
In 1998, Louisiana adopted Coast 2050, developed by federal and state agencies as a blueprint to restore and rehabilitate coastal Louisiana through large-scale river diversions, shoreline maintenance, barrier-island restoration and drainage-pattern remediation. Beginning in 2002, the Corps of Engineers in partnership with the state of Louisiana began the work of developing that blueprint into the comprehensive, 5,000-page Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Plan, a scientific and technical roadmap that detailed $14 billion of projects over 30 years.
In 2003, a draft of the Louisiana Coastal Area plan was sent to the White House for review but was stalled and subsequently downsized by the Bush administration.
“It set the program back 18 months,” says Milling.
In 2005, after the one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Louisiana legislature created the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority with the mandate to develop a master plan that for the first time addresses both coastal restoration and hurricane protection. It was an historic undertaking.
“What we tried to do,” says Milling, who is a member of the authority, “was take members from environmental groups and have them sit at a table with Shell and other folks from the oil industry because at the end of the day we are all pragmatists.”
That plan, “Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast,” was unanimously approved by the state legislature in June 2007. The plan is comprehensive, specific, open-ended and can be found online at www.lacpra.org.
“We had to do it and it has to be the state’s plan going forward,” says Milling. “No state in the union has the capacity to undertake something like this and yet we had no choice. Because if we don’t get this done we are going to lose it all.”
Lose it all. If you take into account that Percy Viosca was speaking publicly about these issues 80 years ago, you have to wonder about the set of circumstances that leads to such limited options. How do we get ourselves into such jams? How can something that so obviously needs to be addressed go unattended?
“I think it’s simple,” says Houck. “We all die in about 70 years. We don’t have to think. Everything is like derby fishing. Everything is compressed within that period of time.”
One step forward, half step back, shuffle to the side. Each piece of encouragement seems to arrive frayed at the edges.
Even last November’s passage of the federal Water Resources Development Act that has authorized as much as $7 billion in spending on Louisiana hurricane protection and coastal restoration does not guarantee that the funding will be delivered in adequate amounts. (Davis has called it a “license to beg.”)
Even the widely applauded state master plan contains programs to wall off the Louisiana coast with “super levees” that some scientists and environmentalists have cautioned could do more harm than good.
“If we do nothing, everybody will be devastated,” says Milling. “If we do something, everybody will be hurt not quite as much as they would to the contrary.”
And this is the good news from the Louisiana coast. The wetlands still exist. We have not yet killed them. We may even be able to save them.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org