Posted by: coastlinesproject | December 31, 2011

Louisiana; BP’s Surprising Legacy.

Chapter 12

BP’s Surprising Legacy

Delacroix Marsh

November 10, 2010

“Hold your horses!” Michael smiled at a skein of ducks a Northern Harrier had just scared up off the marsh. “I have a little date with them next Saturday when the season opens,” he explained, as he throttled down our ear deafening airboat. “I can already taste ’em in my brother’s duck and sausage gumbo.”

Even if the government didn’t pay him, there was no place Michael Bell would rather be than on this marsh. Ever since he was a boy, Michael had been fascinated with marshes. He loved the smell of the mud and the way it felt when it oozed up between your toes, and through your fingertips when you squeezed it in your hands.

“I spent most of my summers on the water. My parents were pretty lenient, the only firm rule we ever had was, ‘No kids allowed in the house during the day!’ Why waste money on air conditioning when you could be outside? That suited me, and my brother Bart just fine. We would be up every morning at dawn and out in a boat by daylight.”

“It really didn’t matter what kind of boat it was. I was the oldest so my brother had to paddle anyway. We’d just see a nice pirogue and say, ‘Hmm, looks like a pretty good boat, nobody’s using it, so we might as well take it out fishing. We would spend all day building forts, blazing trails and catching bass, brim and milk-mouthed white crappies, only we called ’em ‘sac-a-lait.’”

“We started to fish from motorboats after Dad bought a store in Cypermort Point, near New Iberia. I guess you could say we were just coonasses living the life of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer; fishin’, froggin’ and catchin’ alligators. We used to use headlights to jig for frogs. The backs of their retina would reflect the light, so you’d look for these glowing eyes staring up at you. You’d learn pretty quick to only spear the green eyes, the red eyes belonged to alligators and you didn’t want to have to wrestle one of those in the dark.”

“I was always just on the edge of getting into serious trouble as a kid. It was usually for speaking French in class. My family spoke French at home, so I was always getting sent to the principal for talking French behind the teacher’s back.”

After high school I joined the military and became a hospital corpsman. Upon separation from the military, I moved back to New Orleans where I took pre-med classes at UNO. That worked out just fine until hurricane Katrina came along and destroyed my house in Lake View. That’s when I decided to move to Baton Rouge and try to get into medical school again.

One day after classes I went to talk to Dr William Crowe about enantiomers, stereoisomerism and other mind boggling organic chemistry concepts. Fortunately he didn’t have much to do that afternoon, so we had a good long talk. Initially about OChem but somehow it turned into a talk about life and choices. Finally, seeing that I was not thrilled about working inside with “sick people,” he suggested I walk over to the School of Renewable Natural Resources and see what they had to offer. I really owe Dr Crowe. Studying the science of nature had never occurred to me. That afternoon my major had changed and I got a job working in Dr Kelso’s lab looking for small fish in upland freshwater streams. My first job out of school was with the Department of Interior. That’s what got me out on this boat collecting marsh data.”

But what Michael and I couldn’t see were any signs of the oil spill, just hundreds of ducks, geese, fish, and thousands of acres of marsh grass waving in the quiet breeze. What we could see, however, was how much this marsh had been degraded by over 75 years of abuse.

Unlike other coastal states, Louisiana has no beaches to speak of. It is flanked instead, by about a hundred miles of marshlands that stretch from the mainland into the Gulf of Mexico. The first fifty miles of marsh are flooded every spring by fresh water and consist of fresh water plants. The second fifty miles of marshland get flooded by salt water on every tide and consist of salt-water plants. A northerner can see the difference right away. Alligators leer up at you from creeks in the fresh water marsh, but the salt-water marsh looks just like the marshes you might see on Cape Cod or Long Island Sound.

As soon as we passed Mozambique Point, Michael pointed to the dead trunks of oaks jutting out of the upland marsh, “Those have been killed by salt water intrusion.”

He explained that thousands of miles of pipeline channels crisscross through this marsh like spaghetti. When the oil companies originally dredged them, the channels were only about 30 feet wide. But as soon as they allowed salt water to flow into the brackish water interior of the marsh, it killed the fresh water plants and the edges of the channels started to erode. Now most of the channels are hundreds of feet wide and only a few small frayed patches of marsh remain in a shallow sea of mud.

The other problem is that the soil under the marsh is compacting, and it is no longer being replaced by sediments from the Mississippi River. The river now flows through a straitjacket of artificial levees that shoot the valuable sediments out into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico where they fall uselessly to the ocean floor. These combined problems are causing this coast to lose the equivalent of a football field worth of land every half hour. By the time we return to the dock, some of the houses along this bayou may have lost another foot of lawn off their back yard lots.

The first data sampling station revealed the problem. We had traveled about forty miles beyond Delacroix, Louisiana, and were close to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. You could see the silhouettes of oilrigs looming in the distance. We pulled up to a simple wooden plank boardwalk that jutted into the marsh. It was covered with the scat of a raccoons that sat on the boardwalk last night, cracking open the shells of blue crabs and shrimp.

The boardwalk reached into the thousands of acres of waving Spartina grass, flecked with the white and purple blossoms of late blooming marsh asters. Spartina alterniflora is one of the only grasses that can tolerate the high salinity of this water which is about half that of the open ocean only half a mile away.

The second station, several miles closer toward the mainland, was more interesting. The salinity was about a third that of the open ocean and the vegetation alternated between salt water Spartina grass and fresh water wiregrass. Michael explained that when fresh water flooded through the marsh it allowed the wiregrass to flourish, but when the rain stops it allows the salt-water tides to suppress the wiregrass and the Spartina grass to reestablish itself, so this was an intermediate area in a constant state of seasonal flux.

“See those tracks over there? They are from Nutria, the scourge of these marshes. They were introduced from South America, but now they have taken over, but we didn’t see them at the first station because of the higher salinity.”

As if to verify Michael’s claim an alligator cruised by slowly to see what we were doing. “You don’t see alligators where the salinity is high. He’s probably looking for his own nutria casoulet.”

Several more miles closer to the mainland the third station was completely different. As we approached the station we scared up hundreds of coot, small black diving waterfowl that paddled furiously across the surface of the water to get airborne. They had been feeding in vast mats of submerged aquatic vegetation that thrive in this shallow brackish environment. We could see blue crabs sculling through the fronds of coontail grass being sucked beneath our boat from our passage overhead. The salinity at this station was an eighth of what you would find in the open ocean.

The surface grass was entirely Schoenoplectus americanus (bulrush), a very common species in brackish marshes. The Spartina grasses were nowhere to be seen, but the bulrush had been severely cropped by Nutria, leaving large empty patches spotting the marsh.

The three stations had been set out like a well thought out ecology exam. Each station exhibited a different problem ranging from salt-water intrusion to destruction by the invasive Nutria species.

Long before the recent spill or even Katrina, coastal scientists have been saying that marsh degradation is the real problem that puts New Orleans at risk. They estimate that every mile of healthy marsh can reduce the amount of hurricane generated storm surges by a foot, so if these marshes had not been channalized, New Orleans never would have been flooded (Levee failure was the main reason so much of the city was inundated). But what was needed was a way to understand in detail what was happening to every part of the millions of acres of marsh that flank this coast.

The three sites we had just sampled were the result a program that started when Congress passed the Coastal Wetlands Planning Protection and Restoration Project in 1990. Michael explained that the act set aside money to monitor the entire coastal system of southern Louisiana.

“Today the Coastwide Reference Monitoring System is the only program in the world where we have guaranteed funding to monitor the entire marsh. CRMS was the brainchild of my boss Dr. Greg Steyer. In 2003 he wrote a paper that indicated that if you monitored a hundred marsh sites every month it would provide you with a 95% confidence level that your results would be accurate. But if you sampled 400 sites for salinity, vegetation, temperature and soil characteristics you could accurately see a 20% change in vegetation. Eventually they compromised and selected 390 sites. We visit most of them every month and the data is downloaded onto our website. Each site receives a report card so you can see both the short and long-term changes that have occurred since 2005.”

But Bobby Jindal didn’t have any of this in mind when he arm wrestled BP into putting up $360 Million dollars to dredge sediments out of the Mississippi River and use them to construct berms to prevent oil from entering the marshes. It was clear from the beginning, that the Louisiana governor’s idea was a hare-brained scheme. Only a piddling amount of oil was ever contained by the berms. But after the spill was capped, more than $ 276 million dollars had already been spent and Governor Jindal had to justify their expense. Within weeks, he started saying that program would continue and it’s real purpose was to rebuild Louisiana’s offshore islands to protect her marshes.

Coastal scientists were shocked. For years they had been trying to wrestle money out of government agencies to restore Louisiana’s marshes. Now it was being done with money from the private sector — and from BP no less!

Michael explained that there were no guarantees that the project will work exactly as advertised. Most of the sand would wash offshore in succeeding storms, but in doing so it would be sacrificed to protect the underlying structure of the islands. After the storms passed succeeding waves were supposed to wash the sand back ashore to rebuild the berms.

While there are no guarantees, it is clear that this is probably Louisiana’s last and best chance, to finally get it right. It is ironic that this state of the art program might be the ultimate legacy of the spill. If so, it wont be a moment too soon. It is only a matter of time before another Katrina knocks on one of New Orleans’ ornate iron grill front doors.

Read more in “The Well From Hell; The BP spill and the Endurance of Big Oil” see Strawberry Hill Books tab at the top of this page.


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