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Louisiana in Peril : U.S. Wetlands Swamped by Tide of Neglect

Times Staff Writer

When Alligator Annie takes her boat into the swamps each day, she sees a bit more of her world washing away.

She is no scientist, but Annie knows things aren’t right out here in the vast Louisiana wetlands, where the land keeps sinking and the canals grow wider each year and the fresh water marsh is taking on a salty taste.

She knows things are different from the days when she used to catch snakes here for a living, selling them by the pound to New Orleans dealers. That was back before she began taking greenhorns into the swamps 10 years ago to show them the alligators and how she can call them to her boat as a mother would her children.

And Annie is seeing things change even faster now--as if nature has shifted a gear.

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‘Every Year, There’s Less’

“Right here now on the left. It was a huge cattle pasture. Now it looks like a lake,” she said, pulling her boat to the side of a canal and cutting the engine. “Every year, there’s less birds and animals. You could ride around all day now and I bet you wouldn’t see an otter.

“I don’t know what’s changing it. Maybe it’s the intrusion of salt water. And they cut so many channels in here. I think that had something to do with it. And of course the natural sinking of the land is another thing.”

As she spoke, an oil company service boat roared down the canal, leaving a 3-foot wake that bashed the shoreline and made yet another dent in the Louisiana wetlands, one of the largest and most important ecosystems in the United States--and one that is in great peril. A special report prepared this year by a state task force calls land loss in Louisiana a problem of “catastrophic” proportions.

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“You’ve got a state that’s washing away,” said Dave Hall, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife enforcement officer who has long sounded the alarm about the Louisiana wetlands.

The state’s new-found concern may be too late. Louisiana, already reeling from a bankrupt economy, could pay dearly for its decades of apathy and of kowtowing to the oil industry. At the moment, Louisiana is losing land at an estimated rate of 50 square miles a year--an area roughly the size of Washington, D.C.,--and one of the more dire predictions is that the Gulf of Mexico could be lapping at the outskirts of New Orleans before the middle of the next century. Another is that four of the state’s coastal parishes (counties) could be mostly under water sometime within the next century.

Replicating the Future

What is happening to Louisiana may also portend the plight of the rest of the United States, should global warming cause sea levels to rise and swallow up more of the country’s coasts, as many scientists are now predicting. The state’s shoreline may be replicating the future now because the wetlands are constantly sinking, giving the illusion of fast-rising water.

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“What happens here is a metaphor for the rest of the world,” said Paul Templet, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

Not that Louisiana’s wetlands are the only ones in trouble. The Florida Everglades, for instance, are in such poor condition that the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami filed a suit last month claiming that state regulatory agencies had breached the public trust by allowing polluted water to endanger 1.5-million acres of federal land.

Long List of Losses

The once-thriving wetlands of California’s Central Valley are almost completely gone, filled in and plowed under as farmland. One estimate is that only 120,000 acres, or about 4% of the valley wetlands remain. More than 95% of Iowa’s wetlands have been destroyed, and the list, a long one, goes on.

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“All of America’s wetlands are in trouble,” said William C. Raffalt, director of the Wilderness Society’s wildlife refuge programs and former chief of the Division of Refuge Management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His evidence: Of the 215 million acres of wetlands that were here in the days of the earliest Colonists, only 93 million acres remain today. In fact, the fate of the wetlands is so precarious that a government-sponsored panel, the National Wetlands Policy Forum, last month called for a major effort to save America’s remaining wetlands.

But the 5.4-million-acre Louisiana wetlands are perhaps the most important and the most ravaged. This is a land with its own kind of soft beauty. The air is heavy and bayous curve through the land aimlessly. It is a home to the cottonmouth and brown pelican, swamp tupelo and bald cypress, crawfish and muskrat. It is the land of Longfellow’s “Evangeline.”

Rich Fishery

These wetlands account for 40% of the nation’s coastal marshes but also 80% of the yearly coastal loss. The fishery’s yearly yield is the largest in the country--1.6-billion pounds of fish and shellfish--a $680-million business. More than 2 million in fur pelts are taken from the wetlands each year. Almost half the nation’s waterfowl winter in the Louisiana wetlands, but that number is declining steadily each year as the erosion marches on. The marshes and barrier islands act as the first line of defense to protect New Orleans and other inland cities from the full force of a hurricane.

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But they have also been scarred by an estimated 10,000 miles of canals, most of them dredged by oil companies to gain access to their marshland wells. Those, in turn, have opened the door for salt water from the Gulf to invade the marshes and kill fresh water vegetation and wildlife. The pumping of oil and gas from the wetlands is also thought to be a contributing factor to the subsidence of the wetlands, but no studies have yet been conducted to determine how much.

At the same time, the wetlands no longer have their healing source--the Mississippi River and the sediment flowing into it that was once the lifeblood of the Louisiana Delta. Over the last half century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done its work well in harnessing the river. Once sediment flowed over the wetlands during flooding to renew them. Now it is sandwiched between levees and washes well out into the Gulf of Mexico before it sinks.

Feel Themselves Forgotten

Louisiana environmentalists dedicated to saving the wetlands complain that they have been largely forgotten by first-tier conservation groups with lobbying clout in Washington.

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“It’s been a surprisingly hard sell,” said Don Boesch, the director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, located on a finger of land surrounded by wetlands. “By and large, national environmental organizations are not here. I tell them all the time that they are off fighting symbolic battles while we have more damage here than any place in the country.

“It’s partly our own fault. We haven’t raised this to a high visibility. It’s not whales, and it’s not syringes on the beach,” he said.

And others who have long fought for the preservation of the wetlands have all but given up because their efforts have produced so little.

“We’re going to lose south Louisiana. That’s what’s going to happen,” said Oliver Houck, a Tulane University law professor and former general counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. “My optimism went away two or three years ago. We’re only going to be able to hold on to a few museums of marsh.”

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What is happening in Louisiana now is a product of man’s influence over the last half century, as he undid a process that had been going on for 7,000 years.

During those millenniums, the Mississippi River swung back and forth like a garden hose run amok. Unchecked, the mighty river picked its own way before finally settling in for the next 1,000 years or so, building up the delta, delivering an average of 300-million tons of silt to Louisiana each year in 500-trillion gallons of fresh water.

Geologists can point to seven different deltas of the Louisiana coast where this natural process built up the wetlands before the fickle river moved on to another route to open water.

Then came the great flood of the Mississippi in 1927, the largest ever recorded on the river, which topped flood control levees already built by the Corps of Engineers. More than 200 people were killed and the flood waters inundated some 26,000 square miles of land. More than 500,000 people were displaced.

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The 1927 disaster led to the authorization of the largest flood control project ever attempted. That program under the protective eye of the Corps of Engineers, is still going on today. The river and its sediment aren’t going anywhere but where the Corps wants it to go.

While the Corps wrestled with the Mississippi, the oil and gas exploration companies were beginning their first canals into the Louisiana wetlands. From the air, the swamp now looks as if it has been cut with a thousand knives. The canals are everywhere, as are signs warning boaters not to anchor because there is a pipeline underneath.

In the early years of drilling, the state was more than eager to have the oil companies dredging the swamps. The land, after all, was thought of as virtually worthless, with only the Cajuns--the swamp people like Alligator Annie--making a living from it by fishing and trapping.

But over the last 10 years, even after public awareness about Louisiana’s plight grew, the Corps of Engineers issued thousands of permits for activities in the wetlands, many of them for dredging. And there have been thousands more under the auspices of different government agencies.

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The oil companies say they have tried to be better conservationists, but they also say that dredging canals is the price of doing business.

“Unfortunately, we still need canals,” said Michael Lyons, executive vice president of the Louisiana division of the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Assn. “We still need access if we are going to continue to explore.”

Oil Industry Is Master

Arguably, Louisiana could be the worst place in all the United States for a wetlands crisis. In a state where political scandal is the norm, it is an open secret that the oil industry, the state’s major income source, has long been the master and the Legislature the lackey.

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“The oil and gas industry has substantial influence with the Legislature, putting it as diplomatically as I can,” said Templet.

But now Louisiana is $600 million in the hole and the reason, ironically, is that revenues plummeted when the oil and gas industry fell on hard times.

Gov. Buddy Roemer, who made preservation of the wetlands an issue in his campaign last year, is having trouble just keeping the crippled economy going. Pinched by the economic crisis in his state, he pulled back $35 million that had been earmarked for wetlands research since 1981 but had been put to little use, to pay more pressing bills.

As an indicator of the disarray in the state, a special session of the Louisiana Legislature ended last month after lawmakers were unable to agree on ways to raise even $1 in new revenues.

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Roemer’s main contribution so far has been to appoint Dave Soileau, on loan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the “wetlands czar,” overseeing the various state agencies that in the past have done more fighting than cooperating over who had lead authority for solving the wetlands problems. It was under Soileau’s direction that the agencies were able to put together the recently issued state report.

“The solution as we perceive it is to divert massive quantities of water and sediment from the river,” said Soileau. “We have good people and good ideas, but no money.”

Nor is that money likely to come anytime soon. The major source of any funding would have to come from Congress through the Corps of Engineers, whose two mandates are flood control and navigation, and the price tag for any major work is in the billions of dollars.

Further, the Corps operates under a system in which a project must prove that the benefit justifies the cost, which is difficult to do when the area being saved is a swamp.

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The Corps, however, says it is interested in the wetlands problem and did begin a $500,000 study this year to determine the feasibility of measures to build up the delta. It is also building one small water diversion facility, and two others are being designed. But Col. Lloyd Brown, the Corps’ outgoing district engineer, said nothing is going to be done in a hurry, not until there is much more study of the problem. But, in its recent report, the National Wetlands Policy Forum urged that the Corps add wetlands restoration and creation to its other mandates.

The other major player involved--the oil and gas industry--simply shunts the blame on to the Corps of Engineers and bridles at the suggestion that it bear any cost of replenishing the marshes. The industry’s argument: It has already paid Louisiana billions of dollars in royalties and taxes.

“Our simple answer is that we have paid dearly,” said Lyons of Mid-Continent. “We have funded the Louisiana state government since the ‘30s.”

Others don’t see it that way, including Templet of the environmental quality department.

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“Fair is fair, and they need to pay their fair share,” he said.

While the talk goes on, those being affected by the wetlands erosion throw up their hands at the possibility of yet more studies to define the best course of action. James Edmondson, a leader of Terrebonne Parish’s wetlands effort, contends that enough studies have been done and that it is time to take action. And he also said it is high time that the state’s agencies begin working as a unit.

“We have been screaming until we were blue in the face: ‘Jesus, get it together,’ ” he said.

In the meantime, an acre of land is lost into the Gulf every 14 minutes. Hall, the Fish and Wildlife enforcement officer, said one of his friends had a favorite spot in the swamp for a fishing camp, but now, there is nothing there but water. Hall himself has to make sure of his bearings in the swamp because the looks of the place change so rapidly. He, too, has little faith that Louisiana is going to solve its problems. Like others, he sees lip service and no action.

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“Nothing is being done,” he said. “It’s been worse than swimming up river to get people to address this issue. And we sure aren’t going to make a national issue out of it when we can’t even do it at home.”


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