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Floating Marsh
A group of visiting journalists from Portugal get a feel for what it's like to stand on a floating marsh, while investigating a problem their country shares with Louisiana — the annual erosion of wetlands.
A Sinking Feeling in New Orleans

By Glynn Wilson

Speeding down Penchant Canal through a Louisiana marsh, federal agent Mike Tullos throttles back at the sight of a gator, a nutria, or a dead stretch of vegetation. The gators are doing fine, the intruding rodents even better, living atop all that oil and gas.

    But the most important wetlands economically and environmentally in the continental United States are sinking into the Gulf of Mexico speedily by any measure, with or without global warming, at a rate of 25 square miles a year. So many acres have been lost in this severe drought year alone that the prospect of a hurricane or a flood has the powerful in New Orleans quaking like the muck in the floating marshes of Bayou DeCade.

    Stepping from the boat, Tim Landrenau, an agent with the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, pushes down with his feet and legs. Twenty-feet away, a patch of marsh moves.

    "This is a floating marsh," he tells the group on two boats, mostly made up of journalists from Portugal, invited here by Dr. Bob Thomas of the Loyola University Center for Environmental Communications.

    "This is like walking on water," says Rita Siza from Porto. It's like standing on water and muck, which at any moment could suck you under.

    New Orleans is built in a swamp, and is steadily, surely sinking. If global warming causes glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise, this is the front line. You can see it sinking in the caved-in streets of Uptown, especially on a bike. The very survival of one of the nation's favorite playgrounds and most diverse and interesting cities, (not to mention the food and culture) depends on this ground staying within reasonable range of sea level.

    All but the Garden District lies below it now, the big water held up only by a series of levees. The walls divert sediment, which would replenish the land. This also creates a large dead zone, an oxygen-starved Gulf pool up to 200 miles across.

    A deep rumbling has been felt in every flood since 1973, not only on the levee walls. Those whose past is rooted here and whose future depend on this ground wonder when, not if, the next big disaster will strike. Like Californians who fear the big quake, aborigines who fear thinning ice, or islanders who watch their beaches slide into the world's oceans, New Orleanians worry about the advance of salt water from the south and the threat of big water from the north.

    The area's importance to the country is measured in barrels of oil and boatloads of seafood. Eighty percent of U.S. domestic offshore oil and gas revenue comes from leases off Louisiana's coast, and Louisiana has taken the brunt of the collateral damage. At least 40 percent of the country's salt marshes and coastal wetlands, and 24 percent of the total wetlands are here, a nursery and refuge for much of our seafood. Where do most of the so-called Chesapeake crabs come from? Southern Louisiana. What about the shrimp that's not pond-grown? The Gulf of Mexico. Bon Secour Oysters? You guessed it, off the coast of Louisiana and Texas.

    Yet this year close to half of all smooth cordgrass in the Louisiana wetlands may be dead or dying due to the lack of summer rain. Half the normal amount fell this year, leaving a 75-mile swath of dead grass from the Mississippi Delta to the Atchafalaya Delta. Duck season opens Nov. 18, and hunters are wondering if the ducks will have enough to eat when they arrive. Scientists examining the roots say the dead grasses will now crumble and sink, bringing water in place of land. Marsh grass holds soil in place, provides nutrients for life, and protects against storm surges.

    Yet the main bill before Congress with a chance of offsetting some of this loss is being held up by conservative Republican senators from the American West — on the basis of a perceived threat to property rights and the fear of a government land-buying spree. While most of the opposition is from the West, the Marietta, Ga., Chamber of Commerce, in a suburb of Atlanta, joined the fight against the Conservation and Reinvestment Act in September, releasing a statement claiming that the broad legislation would have "negative impacts on business, property rights, currently funded federal programs that would be eliminated, and increased taxation." CARA, as the bill is known, contains $14 billion to fund 15 years of coastal restoration and many conservation measures around the country, everything from urban parks and greenways to Louisiana wetlands restoration. It passed the U.S. House in May, and seemed headed for an easy ride after passing the energy committee in the upper chamber, according to Senate aides. But CARA is now being held hostage by the threat of a filibuster and the clock. Congress was supposed to adjourn Oct. 6.

    With CARA stalled, a six-year $1.6 billion line item was added to an Interior Department appropriations bill to fund some projects. But the latest version contains no money for Louisiana coastal restoration, no long-term funds. While there are ongoing grants under the recently reauthorized Breaux Act, which provide $60 million to $70 million, Louisiana is asking for $300 million a year for the next 15 years to try and stop the water's advance by building marsh with berms and groins, a couple of weapons in the war on erosion.

    Each agency has its favorite. The "Narcs" of the NRCS favor hydrologic restoration and marsh management, or building walls. The Corps of Engineers likes diverting fresh water to stave off saltwater intrusion. The EPA goes for restoring barrier islands.

    "We all work together and it all works out," says veteran Corps agent Sue Hawes.

    But does it? Will the structures help stop the erosion and the threat of big water?

    "An awful lot," says agent Landrenau, with a tentative glance at the rip-rap rocks and dredged marsh bottom holding a critical piece of solid ground in place. Looking up, he said emphatically, "It better."

    Without help, mile after mile of fresh marsh will quietly slip into the encroaching salt water, bringing the Gulf of Mexico ever closer to the walls protecting New Orleans from sinking into the Mississippi.

    Atchafalaya means big water, and is the major contender to be the new main river channel, west of New Orleans, if the levees fail in a big storm. It may be no problem for the gaters, nutria and other creatures to migrate north. But what about all those New Orleanians and their jazz and Mardi Gras? Who will man the rigs, blow the horns, bring in the catch and make the gumbo?

Glynn Wilson is a free-writer who teaches journalism at Loyola University New Orleans, and editor-in-chief of The Southerner.
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