Friday, February 25, 2011

Restoration and Revitalization Efforts in and around New Orleans

By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant

Last October, nearly two dozen Sea Grant communicators and colleagues from throughout the national network’s 32 programs participated in a habitat restoration planting effort in New Orleans' City Park. The National Sea Grant College Program engages this network of the nation’s top universities, which work with coastal communities and conduct scientific research, education, training, and extension projects designed to foster science-based decisions about the use and conservation of our aquatic resources.

The Sea Grant group planted Spartina grasses – a rather common perennial marsh grass with a very high salt tolerance – along 200 feet of shoreline in the brackish Big Lake, reinforcing the shore from erosion caused by wave action. The planting also created new fisheries habitat, maintained and stocked by the Louisiana State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

“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 Caitlin Reilly (pictured below in 1), a Sea Grant extension specialist at Louisiana State University (LSU) who led the group. In addition to Spartina patens (or marsh hay, pictured in 2, below), 0ther commonly used plant species in and around New Orleans restoration sites include bitter panicum (3, below), Gulf bluestem, bullrush and oyster grass.

During this February 2011 visit with educators from the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) and some New York Sea Grant (NYSG) staff, Reilly discussed some of the other efforts of the LSU AgCenter's Wetland Plant Center (WPC) in City Park. Operated by the LSU AgCenter since the 2005 hurricane season (which included both Katrina and Rita), WPC has coordinated hundreds of volunteers to propagate and plant tens of thousands of native grasses and irises at restoration sites across southeastern Louisiana. In addition to providing plants for projects in City Park, WPC also has restoration sites in Bayou St. John, Grand Isle State Park and, until recent litigation over possible contaminated soils forced the State to place a moratorium on such activities, Elmer's Island Wildlife Management Area.

“In the face of land loss, we see a lot of need for restoration in Louisiana, especially after Hurricane Katrina," says Reilly, a native New Yorker and graduate of Manhattan College who has also coordinated the LSU AgCenter's Oil Spill Extension Response and Recovery Task Force since last June as a Louisiana Sea Grant Extension Associate.

This week, NYSMEA and NYSG staff volunteered with several dozen students from Andrew Jackson Middle School in nearby Chalmette, Louisiana (4, below) to propagate 2,700 strands of Gulf bluestem (a wetland plant) and re-pot 320 Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass, a wetland plant), for future WPC restoration efforts. All weeds were removed from each Spartina plant (6-14, below), 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 (5, below).

Following the plant propagation project at WPC, Reilly toured around the greater New Orleans area with NYSMEA and NYSG folks, discussing some of the problems facing the region, including the effects of humans "altering the landscape" (15, below, as seen at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, NWR). Established in 1990, Bayou Sauvage NWR encompasses approximately 25,000 acres in New Orleans and is the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country. It is 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.”

In this region, there are two levee systems – there is the system of levees that controls the Mississippi River and another for all the drainage systems that serve as a hurricane-protection measure. The levee system on the River is what built the foot of south Louisiana that sticks out into the Gulf (as Reilly explains in 17, below). Over the last 10,000 years or so, the River has moved back and forth, spreading out sediment and building land. “At this point, with all the modifications we made to the area’s hydrology, we really don’t see a lot of River flooding,” says Reilly. “And that’s considered to be part of the problem with sinking here. We have this long-term issue of sinking and then we have all these canals which have helped speed up the process of erosion.”

There is active building happening in some areas of southern Louisiana and subsidence in others. After the Great Mississippi River flood in 1927, legislation was passed that empowered the Army Corps of Engineers to levee the entire Mississippi River, which is basically the main drainage system for the entire United States. From the Colorado Rockies to the Appalachian Mountains, everything drains into the various rivers that then drain into the Mississippi River.

And, when you combine this shift in water diversion with both a system of up-river dams that prevent sediment from flowing down and cuts through the area’s hydrology due to canal explorations for oil and gas that are slowly filtering out salt, Reilly cautions, “all of a sudden, you have tidal motion in areas like swamps that should instead have a graduated salinity. So, we’re seeing large die-offs in our swamps which should be mostly freshwater.”

Perhaps the biggest and most costly challenge to date facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District is a multi-billion dollar project being called the “Great Wall of Louisiana.” At around 20 feet high and almost two miles long, this barrier being built around the city of New Orleans is slated for completion this June. It is one of the key components in the Corps' Hurricane and Storm Risk Reduction System to defend against the effects of a 100-year storm.

One hundred year level of protection actually means reducing risk from a storm surge that has a 1% chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year. The 1% chance is based on the combined chances of a storm of a certain size and intensity (pressure) following a certain track. Different combinations of size, intensity and track can result in a 100-year surge event.

According to the Corps' New Orleans District Web site: "What was once a patchwork of levees, floodwalls and pumps before the hurricanes is becoming a true System that will provide 100-year level perimeter protection against hurricane storm surge to greater New Orleans. Today, the area already has the best perimeter defense in its history, and work continues at a record pace. We are driving hard to have in place a system that can defend against a 100-year storm by June 2011."

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 (18, above) 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 (19, above). 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 (20, above), was the lower 9th Ward. Since then, help has come in the form of the Make It Right Foundation, among others. After touring the area post-Katrina and observing both the depth of flooding (21, above) and extent of damage done to the lower 9th Ward (22, above, and 24, below), Brad Pitt (23, below) established the Make It Right Foundation to build 150 green, affordable, high-quality design homes in the neighborhood closest to the levee breach.

During our visit to the lower 9th Ward, we came across a number of damaged homes (25, below), empty and abandoned house plots, and, at 1700 Deslonde Street (26, below), the first house gutted after Hurricane Katrina. We also saw a number of the homes built by Make It Right, included those pictured in (27) and (28), below.

A Make It Right Foundation display station in the lower 9th Ward illustrates the interior and exterior features included in all of the homes built and being built (29 and 30, below). These homes reflect the "green" ideals put forth by the Foundation, whose founders invited a group of high-profile and influential New Orleans, national and international architects to develop affordable, e-friendly, storm resistant housing for the community, incorporating the latest in innovative and sustainable design.

Additional post-Katrina assistance in the lower 9th Ward is offered by Common Ground Relief (CGR), whose volunteers we also visited with during our time in the area. CGR is a volunteer-run not-for-profit organization covering a diverse range of projects, ranging from new home construction and a free legal clinic, to wetlands restoration (31, below) and community gardening. CGR's volunteers, including those we met who opted for an alternative to their winter break vacation, can apply for short- or long-term housing while they pitch in with revitalization efforts in the lower 9th Ward.

Now, we're heading further south, to Louisiana's Grand Isle and Elmer's Island for some volunteer planting and a visit to a very unique maritime forest. We'll have a wrap-up from there early next week.


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    Justin E

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