Louisiana's shrinking marshes signal the loss of a way of life
Posted June 5, 2018 2:51 p.m. EDT
(CNN) — Dean Blanchard looks across the open water and shakes his head. "This used to be all land and trees," he says in his distinct Cajun dialect. "There were horses, pigs and cows over there. But it's all gone. They let it all go."
Blanchard's home in coastal Louisiana bayou country is in crisis.
According to the US Geological Survey, more than a football field worth of land vanishes here every 100 minutes.
Blanchard, a lifelong resident of Grand Isle and owner of a local seafood company, remembers everyone making their living off the land when he was a boy.
The bayous, he says, were key to the Cajun lifestyle of trapping, shrimping and fishing.
Now, he says, that way of life is disappearing along with the coastline.
"In the past 15 years," he says, "I've seen more erosion than the first 50 years I was alive."
Why is the land here vanishing so fast? The answer is complex.
Ron Boustany, a natural resource specialist at the US Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, says rising sea levels are a factor, as is the natural sinking of the land.
"But the primary cause of land loss in Louisiana," he said, "is control of the rivers and managing the hydrology that is cutting off the marshes from the lifeblood of the river."
Boustany explains that the process of leveeing the Mississippi River in an effort to protect populated areas from potential floods stopped the water flowing into the wetlands like it once did, which in turn reduced sediment flow from the Mississippi and its tributaries.
Nicholls State University biology professor Gary LaFleur agrees.
But he said that compounding the problem "is the fact that we cut channels within the marshes for navigation to support the industry that goes on here. And as each channel gets wider and wider, more land is lost."
On a Geological Survey map of Louisiana, the coastline is a sea of red dots, each representative of oil and gas infrastructure. And that exact area, LaFleur said, is experiencing land loss like nowhere else on Earth.
Blanchard believes the energy industry deserves the blame.
"When I was a kid, the oil industry dug a lot of canals. And those canals cause coastal erosion. But they didn't care. They just wanted to get the oil, and the state of Louisiana just took the money and let them do it."
Calls to the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association and multiple energy companies for comment received no response.
Thousands of miles of canals have been dredged through bayou waters to support oil and industry barges and pipelines. But these canals, which brought jobs and industry, also came at a very high price.
The USDA estimates that more than 85% of Louisiana wetlands is privately owned. As the oil and gas industry boomed, eventually bringing millions of jobs to the Gulf Coast and stimulating the economy, many residents allowed the energy industry to dredge canals through wetlands they owned in exchange for financial compensation.
The canals expanded the already fragile waterways and allowed salt water to flow inland here at a much stronger and faster rate.
The result: Fresh water turned brackish, which turned to salt water, killing the marshes and eroding the land, creating more areas of open water that encroached farther and farther inland, allowing even more salt water to flow in. According to the Geological Survey, it accelerated an already increasing cycle of land loss.
LaFleur says it's likely that previous generations didn't understand what they had helped set in motion.
"A lot of generations of Louisianans thought of the marshes as wasteland, and in order to make it useful, they thought you had to do something useful with it, like dry it out and put sugar cane or put an oil rig in," he said.
But now, he says, scientists are keenly aware of just how important that "wasteland" truly is.
"All that time, this land, this marsh, was holding on to the mud and protecting Houma and protecting New Orleans," he said.
"The land may have looked like it wasn't doing anything, but it was supporting a whole ecosystem ... which in turn was helping to protect the Louisiana mainland."
LaFleur often takes his students out on Bayou Salle to show them what he means.
A stark line of dead oak trees dotting a narrow strip of land, barely wide enough to expand beyond the trunks, is where he likes to stop and show the effects of changing the composition of the marshland.
Usually, rivers are fresh water and become brackish (a mixture of salt and fresh) as they get closer to open oceans and gulfs.
But LaFleur says it's these areas, with the withered decaying branches, that show just what has happened along the bayou.
Once a freshwater haven, these waterways provided nutrients and soil that supported trees, as well as the large swaths of land that have since eroded.
Without the layers of protection of the marshland and barrier islands, Boustany says, coastal Louisiana -- and the people who live here -- become more vulnerable to increasingly powerful storms.
"We spent a lot of money, effort and time rebuilding the barrier islands" with funds allocated for coastal restoration after the 2010 oil spill, he said.
Boustany says the islands are important because they are the first line of defense against storm devastation. The second is the marsh.
"And without these marshes," he warned, "we would just get wiped out in coastal Louisiana."
Which is why Boustany and his team are working to restore areas of key marshland along the coast.
Along the bayou, workers navigate marsh buggy excavators building containment dikes. Others dredge nearby lakes for mud to redeposit here, along with soil and rock, rebuilding rock banks and marsh in an effort to stave off destruction.
In recent years, there have been signs of hope as politicians, business leaders and residents have come together to advocate for state and federal funds to aid these restoration efforts.
But the work is painstaking and very expensive. Just one project -- which can restore between 300 and 600 acres of marsh -- can cost tens of millions of dollars and bring back just a small sliver of the land that has been lost. And in some cases, the land is too far gone to try to save.
For residents of Isle de Jean Charles, this is the painful reality.
Once the size of Manhattan, the island is now one-third the size of Central Park and shrinking.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development is spending $50 million to relocate close to 40 families to higher ground as early as next year, in the first US climate resettlement plan.
Resident Johnny Tamplet says he won't move.
"I didn't buy my house to live here. I bought it to die here, because this is my paradise," he said.
He says he knows the risk.
Ninety-eight percent of the island is gone, and one strong hurricane could wipe out what's left.
Like Blanchard, Tamplet thinks the energy companies have a lot to answer for. "The land loss happened here because the oil companies came in and patterned this island with canals," he said.
"By far the biggest factor that brought on what's happening here is greed. They did what they did, and they don't want to take responsibility for it, and it's killing southeast Louisiana."
At least six coastal parishes are suing fossil fuel companies that operate in Louisiana for "damages, restoration costs and actual restoration."
In a recent op-ed in the Houma Today newspaper, the outgoing president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, Don Briggs, addressed the lawsuits: "These oil and gas producers who have lawfully fulfilled their state-issued permits are now being sued for as far as 80 years prior. These are not welcoming arms to business and industry of any sort."
He added that the litigation is "turning job creators away from the area."
But this is not the first time the industry has faced litigation in Louisiana because of the canals.
In 2013, the South Louisiana Flood Protection and Levee Authority filed suit against 97 oil and gas companies for damages to the landscape caused by a series of strong Gulf storms.
It argued that industry canals led to the destruction of protective barrier zones of marsh and swamp land below New Orleans.
With these marshes gone, the Levee Authority said in the suit, storms were allowed to move inland unimpeded, causing extensive damage to the landscape.
After a protracted legal battle, in which the case was moved from state to federal court, a federal judge ruled in favor of the energy industry, saying the levee board had no legal standing to bring the lawsuit.
The coastal parishes are hoping to fare better, and their lawsuits are moving forward, albeit slowly.
But, as they did in 2013, the oil and gas company defendants have filed a series of motions to have the cases moved from state to federal court.
New trial dates will have to be set once a federal judge decides whether the cases will be remanded to state court or be heard in federal court.
John Carmouche, attorney for the coastal parishes, called the motions "a delay tactic" and says his clients want only for the state to enforce laws requiring that lands used for mineral exploration and production be restored as closely as possible to their original condition once they are no longer being used or the work is complete.
Requests for comment from the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association went unanswered.
"They won't stop," Carmouche said. "They won't answer allegations in the plaintiff's report about specific violations and are hoping to delay the trial until after 2019."
That is when Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has voiced support for the parishes and urged industry accountability in coastal restoration efforts, is up for re-election.
On Grand Isle, not far from Blanchard's seafood business, there are signs of coastal restoration work. Workers using large cranes and industrial equipment move rock and soil to form new levees and containment dikes.
But Blanchard is far from hopeful. He says it's too little too late.
"In 20 to 30 years, this won't be here," he said. "It makes you want to cry, really."