By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea GrantThe greater New Orleans area is a melting pot of complex issues that often overlap and sometimes conflict. We've seen the impact that major hurricanes (like those in the 2005 season, Katrina and Rita) have had on the area, which are only heightened because of accelerated wetlands loss. According to data from partners of the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act initiative, "If nothing more is done to stop this land loss, Louisiana could potentially lose approximately 700 additional square miles of land, or an area about equal to the size of the greater Washington D.C.-Baltimore area, in the next 50 years."
Overall, these wetlands serve a vital purpose, both as physical habitat and nursery grounds for a wide variety of marine organisms as well as storm buffers by reducing wind and wave action in shallow shoreline areas. But, over the years, their presence in the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary System (BTES) has declined, mostly due to subsidence, a complex process in which marsh sediments compact and sink under their own weight. Historically, annual floods over the banks of the Mississippi River provided freshwater and sediment inputs to BTES marshes and kept them above water. But, the levees that have been constructed to protect shoreline communities from these floods are also preventing water and sediment from reaching BTES marshes.
Over time, the process of subsidence drowns coastal marshes, causing chemical changes in wetland soils which, eventually, kill marsh vegetation. Without plant roots to hold it together, marsh soil breaks up and is carried away by wave action. The end result? Marsh is converted to open water. This additional volume of water causes an increase in the tidal prism, forcing passes to enlarge and reducing the lengths of barrier islands such as Grand Isle, which protect interior marshes from wave action and hurricanes.
"From hurricane flooding to wetlands loss and subsidence, these are complex issues that we're facing as a city," says Caitlin Reilly [pictured above in (1) with an educator from our NYSMEA / NYSG trip]. Reilly, a Sea Grant extension specialist at Louisiana State University (LSU), led the group during a morning of plant propagation and re-potting at the Pelican Greenhouses and Wetland Plant Center [pictured below in (2)] in City Park, New Orleans, LA.
Before beginning their work at the Center, the educators [pictured below in (3)] asked Reilly a series of questions that are likely on the minds of people outside of the area ...
"Why should I care?" ... "A lot of the area's natural resources are in peril," says Reilly, citing oil at the top of that list. One-quarter of all of the U.S.’s crude oil comes from the Gulf. And, Louisiana relies on oil for more than just the day-to-day luxuries of life. One out of every 13 Louisianans work on the drilling and production platforms off the coast. So, without the drilling off the Gulf a lot of people would be out of a job. New York Sea Grant's Long Island Sound Study specialist Larissa Graham discusses the facts, figures and concerns comprising this 'big picture' issue in her February 2011 blog post, "The Louisiana Coast: Oil spills and more."
"So how do we teach sustainability when our economy doesn't dictate it?," one educator asked, using how the oil industry drives the local economy as an example. "Show all sides of the issue and let the students decide for themselves," says NYSG's Graham. "It's something we haven't figured out how to incorporate into our economies," adds Reilly, "but we're going to have to as issues related to and the effects of climate change play a greater part in situations affecting millions of people."
"What can I do at home, focusing on my habitats, to make a difference?," the educators asked. "People are largely unaware of the resources here," says Reilly, "so it's hard to understand what, if anything should be restored." She encourages people to learn more about the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act and decide for themselves.
The other big question on the minds of the educators was something they said they don't hear much, if anything about, in the news anymore: the oil spill. As we're all aware now, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded, flooding the surrounding waters with crude oil. An estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil were estimated to have flowed into the Gulf before it was completely sealed in September 2010. During the cleanup process, 6.8 million liters of soap-like dispersant were used at depth and surface levels to break up the oil. The Deepwater Horizon incident was the largest oil spill to date—in the world.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions," says Reilly, such as the level and effects of the dispersant used, the distribution of oil in the water column, how much oil either evaporated from or was consumed by microbes in the waters of this warm climate. "Compared to all the other issues we're dealing with, the impacts seem relatively negligible at this point," she says, "though large-scale systemic implications may arise down the road."
Like many people in the country, the educators wondered how the seafood industry has been faring through all of this. According to February 2012 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Fisheries Service, Gulf seafood is safe to eat since 2010's Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill. The report was published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and outlines the steps that federal and state experts used to safeguard seafood safety. The report, co-authored by Gina Ylitalo of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and others from NOAA and the Food and Drug Administration, shows that the public can be confident about the seafood they eat, solely based on the integrity of the science process. For more on the report, see NOAA Fisheries Service's related news release, "Study: Seafood Safe After Deepwater Horizon."
While at the Pelican Greenhouses and Wetland Plant Center [see pictures (4) - (5)], the educators propagated some 612 plantings of bitter panicum, one of a variety of commonly used more salt-tolerant plant species used in and around New Orleans restoration sites [see pictures (6) - (9)].
“We have a lot of salinity issues in this part of the country, so we’re always trying to figure out what will stay in place once we get it in there,” says Reilly.
Other plant species include Gulf bluestem, bullrush, oyster grass and Spartina patens (marsh hay), the latter of which the group also helped to re-pot in larger planters for a future restoration effort [see pictures (10) - (16)]. All weeds were removed from each Spartina plant, as the plants do not compete well once planted. Also, the plants were re-potted using a mixture of mostly sand with some mulch and peat moss.
Following their time at the Center, the educators took a tour around the greater New Orleans area to get a better sense of why restoration efforts are so important in this region. At the heart of discussions was the newly-constructed ring around the city.
In June 2011, a $14 billion effort was completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that put a 350-mile ring of levees, 20-foot flood walls, gates and pumps around the greater New Orleans area to defend against the effects of a severe storm. The comprehensive system - outlined in the map below - is a marked improvement from the patchwork of levees and walls that were breached during Hurricane Katrina. This map also features some of the key areas the educators visited, including the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge (A), Bayou Bienvennue (B), the French Quarter (C), the Lower 9th Ward (D) and one of the system's southernmost flood walls (E). For a larger view of this map, click here.
During the tour, the educators discussed with Reilly some of the problems facing the region. They began at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge [as seen in pictures (17) - (19), its muds cracked from recent rains after a long spell of severe droughts in southern Louisiana]. Established in 1990, Bayou Sauvage encompasses approximately 25,000 acres in New Orleans. It is the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country and one of the last remaining marsh areas adjacent to Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne.
Lake Pontchartrain is part of the area’s estuary system north of New Orleans, which also includes Lakes Borgne and Saint Catherine. These spots, along with the eastern side of the city of New Orleans, are where much of the storm surge swept into New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
“New Orleans is in a bowl, so the [Mississippi] River is actually where the high ground is,” says Reilly. “So, when Katrina was happening, you could actually still walk along the River. They called it ‘The Isle of Denial” or ‘The Sliver By the River.’ There are also some ridges near the bayou that are high ground that didn’t flood.”
Historically, it was flooding from the Mississippi River that was the issue of concern. But, with all the modifications to the River’s hydrology in the last 100 years, “it’s changed to where we don’t have as much protection against hurricane storm surges,” says Reilly.
In the French Quarter, you might have seen some short-term flooding of rainwater. But, all of that went down really fast. “The real problems came from sitting water over time,” says Reilly. “So, there was minimal damage to the French Quarter and right along the [Mississippi] River. It was in the areas closer to where the levees breached throughout southeast Louisiana and Mississippi that the main thrust of damage occurred.”
Hurricane flooding in the modern era has been contributed to largely by die-offs of areas like the Cyprus Triangle, near the Ninth Ward, which is located in the easternmost downriver portion of the city of New Orleans. Such locales, including Bayou Bienvenue [as seen in (20), below] never recovered after the opening of the Mississippi River limited sediment transport to keep plants and grasses in place. This move also prevented freshwater from flushing out the land after flooding from severe storms like 1965’s Hurricane Betsy, which left considerable salt staining. All this has caused not only more flooding, but sinking as well.
“This land has been sliced and diced, with nothing to help build the land back up,” says Reilly. “So, there are a good number of dedicated dredging and restoration projects that continue to this day to help combat these issues.”
Adding additional stress to already troubled areas such as the former cyprus forests of Bayou Bienvenue are non-native species such as nutria, a semi-aquatic rodent introduced from South America that has literally eaten up Louisiana's coastline [as seen in (21), below, which was taken during the first NYSMEA/NYSG tour of this area in February 2011].
Nutria live in fresh, intermediate, and brackish marshes and wetlands and feed on vegetation that is vital to the area's coastline. Their "eat-outs" create opening in the marsh vegetation, and, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, they are currently affecting an estimated 100,000 acres of coastal wetlands. With Louisiana's coastal wetlands converting to open water at an annual rate of 25-35 square miles, nutria are an additional burden to an already stressed ecosystem.
One of the areas in the New Orleans area hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina, which set down in late August 2005 [(22, above], was the Lower 9th Ward. As seen in the diagram above, damage to the Lower 9th Ward was extensive - pre-Katrina houses noted in red, post-Katrina houses in black. With sustained winds of 130 miles per hour in New Orleans, this area accounted for 1,000 of the 1,836 total fatalities and more than 4,000 homes destroyed. And, with estimated damages in 2006 totaled $84 billion, some much needed help has continued to come in the form from Make It Right Foundation and Common Ground Relief, among others.
The educators visited one of the southernmost 20-foot flood walls [(23), above] from The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently-completed comprehensive system of levees, flood walls, gates and pumps around the greater New Orleans area. Another flood wall can seen around the Lower 9th Ward [see in the distance in (24), below]
During our visit to the Lower 9th Ward, we came across a mixture of damaged or abandoned homes [(26), below], empty house plots and homes currently under construction [(27), below]. NYSG's Larissa Graham, one of this year's tour facilitators, had a personal connection to the area's rebuilding, having traveled to New Orleans with a group of students from Virginia Tech in 2006, some six months after Hurricane Katrina. Graham was then a graduate student volunteering with Common Ground Collective. Here, in her words, is the work she took part in at a church on Egania Street [see (25), above].
"In Tyvex suits and respirators, we spent four days removing debris from the church and gutting it. The pastor would stop in on us every now and then and bring us Gatorade and water to thank us for our hard work. Once we were finished, the Common Ground staff that were with us said that there was termite damage and they weren't sure if the church would be saved. So, you can imagine why it brought tears to my eyes when I saw that it was reopened. The men rebuilding the house next door said that the pastor had just left for the day - seeing him would have been the icing on the cake. The rebuilding in the area has taken years and still has a long way to go. Although it's just one, little piece, it's nice to know that our hard work wasn't wasted."
Now, we're heading further south for a habitat restoration planting at the Port Fourchon Maritime Forest Ridge and a return visit to a very unique mature maritime forest on Louisiana's Grand Isle.