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The Louisiana Coast: Last Call — How We Got This Way: Canal Dredging

These days when fishing guide Ryan Lambert motors away from the boat launch inBuras, he’s fishing in the what locals call “the land of used-to-bes.”

As in, that used to be Yellow Cotton Bay, or Drake Bay, or English Bay… and dozens more. It’s all one big open body of water now because the marshes, cypress swamps and ridges that separated these water bodies for most of his life are gone.

In fact, NOAA gave official sanction to the term “Disappearing Louisiana” recently, announcing that Yellow Cotton Bay, Bay Pomme d’Or and 20 other place names were being removed from maps and charts in this part of Louisiana for an honest reason: they no longer exist.

Buras fishing guide Ryan Lambert.
Credit Ryan Lambert
Buras fishing guide Ryan Lambert.

Buras fishing guide Ryan Lambert took us out to the west side of the Mississippi River, just off theEmpire Waterway.

“This used to be a community,” said Lambert, as we motored through the area. “I mean, they had people who lived here. If you look in the distance you can see the pilings where the houses used to be all through here; there used to be three different bayous that would run through the marsh. And, across the bayou from one another — which is a slingshot away — they could go to each other’s house and have crawfish boils or shrimp boils and crabs. They would go out their back door and run their trap line and duck hunt. Well, now there’s not a speck of land for miles and miles and miles out here; they’re going, their way of life is going, all because of coastal erosion.”

When the nation finished putting the Mississippi River in a straight jacket of levees in the mid-1930s, scientists knew there would be a price to pay.

Most of southeast Louisiana, shut off from the river sediment that had built it over thousands of years, was now on a long, slow walk to the graveyard, a process that would take centuries.

It would take that long because sediment-starved deltas have two other ways to offset subsidence: the annual cycle of plant growth provides its own type of sediment, and the high tides — and even storm surges — bring in sediment from near shore deposits.

But even those lifelines were about to be broken.

Around the time those levees were completed a new threat to the region was gaining steam, one that would compress that centuries-long death march into a sprint of just decades.

The oil and gas industry had learned that the layer of wetlands along Louisiana’s coast covered enormous wealth. In a few short decades, more than 50,000 wells would be drilled, thousands of miles of canals dredged, and tens of thousands of miles of pipelines laid.

Soon, the wetlands began falling apart. Ponds became lagoons, which became lakes, which became bays — and the coast began receding northward.

Donald Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences.
Credit Cheryl Nemazie / University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science
Donald Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences.

“Starting in the [19]30s and 40s — but really in the 50s, 60s, 70s — we’ve sliced and diced the marshes up, and that’s accelerated the rate of degradation,” saysDonald Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences and a New Orleans native.

For most of that time no one seemed to mind. Since 80 percent of the coastal wetlands were privately owned, the destruction was taking place beyond public view and wetland regulations were 40 years away. Besides, the energy industry had brought millions of jobs and a higher standard of living to a poor Southern state, and it was only following the long American tradition of turning what was considered useless wilderness into productive property.

“These are lands that at one time were considered wastelands — of virtually no economic value, says Mike Lyons, General Counsel to the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. “So, people were looking for ways to make these lands productive. We happened to be blessed with oil and gas in the state, and that was the way that people saw as making these wetlands productive.”

That didn’t begin to change until the late 1960s when Woody Gagliano, a young LSU geologist, finished a project on the delta that reached a startling conclusion:

“The gospel then was that, well, this big river is dumping all this sediment and it’s always built land for five thousand years, [so] the land’s going continue to grow and the river may move around a little bit,” says Gagliano. “But everywhere I went in the field I saw just the opposite.”

That news was not applauded, or even believed, by the state’s political leadership. “We raised the issue for the first time,” says Gagliano. “The response was: ‘Forget about that.’”

The oil industry had a presence in each of the state’s 63 parishes, and already was the most powerful player at the state capitol.

But Gagliano didn’t stop, and soon discovered the rate of land loss had actually reached 50 square miles per year.

“Woody Gagliano raised the issue about the rate of loss, and then his company actually did these first “change maps” that were done,” Boesch said. After that, no one could really deny it.

Land loss map from the United States Geological Survey.
Credit USGS
Land loss map from the United States Geological Survey.

In fact, a growing number of researchers began concentrating on this impact, alarmed at what that land loss could mean. A delta already starved of sediment was being shredded by an industry previously thought to mean only good news to the state.

Gradually, the canals were singled out as the primary villain.

“When we leveed the river we started a process that was measured in the hundred year time frame,” saysBoesch. “And, when we started to dredge so extensively, we accelerated that process so that it began to happen in thedecadaltime frame, tens of years.”

Even after the Clean Water Act of 1972 brought some protection to wetlands even on private lands, the industry and its many supporters in business and politics fought back against tighter regulations.

“What is so tragic about the oil and gas industry’s approach to this — and the state’s sort of callous disregard, I mean complete negligence — was that there were answers,” says Tulane environmental law professor Oliver Houck. “They could have avoided the dredging, they could have immediately repaired the dredging following — they didn’t do either. Having made very sure the state wouldn’t touch them, they turned around and said, ‘Hey, the state never touched us.’ Well, come on — the state is just as complicit in the oil and gas damage as the industry is.”

The dredging would eventually slow down because the oil and gas fields under the wetlands were playing out and the action was moving offshore, where 4,000 rigs would eventually be planted off the state’s coast.

But the damage had been done. Of the nearly 2000 miles of coastal wetlands lost between the 1930s and 2010, researchers say anywhere from 30 to 90 percent can be traced to actions by the oil and gas industry.

“I’m comfortable with up to 90 percent,” says LSU researcher Gene Turner. He says for every acre of canal dredged, there is another five to seven acres of wetland that is lost.

Now, with the state urgently seeking $50 billion to fund the master plan it says can save some of what’s left, environmental groups have called for the oil industry, which already pays some fees, to be held more accountable for the damage it caused.

But the industry says its activities were permitted by the state, and besides, it’s already done its share.

“We feel we’re playing our part in this endeavor,” says Lyons of the Oil and Gas Association. “Taxes or things like that, over and above that, I think that would be inappropriate.”

Yet the state may be looking for more help rapidly because, as impossible as it seems, its dire situation has grown even grimmer in recent years. A third, possibly unstoppable factor has joined the forces seeking to push this corner of the world under water.

With the planet warming due to greenhouse gas pollution, the Gulf of Mexico is rapidly rising.

Scientists recently have predicted that because southeast Louisiana — including New Orleans — is sinking at the same time the seas are rising, this landscape now faces the highest rate of sea level rise on the planet.

That story tomorrow.

Support for The Louisiana Coast: Last Call comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an organization that addresses the challenges facing people who live and work in the coastal communities of Southeast Louisiana.The Louisiana Coast: Last Call is written and reported by Bob Marshall of The Lens, and produced by Fred Kasten.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

An oil platform and work boats off the coast of Grand Isle in 2010.
Jason Saul / WWNO
An oil platform and work boats off the coast of Grand Isle in 2010.