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Coastal Erosion of Louisiana's Wetlands

In: Social Issues

Submitted By spilan2
Words 1587
Pages 7
Ashton Piland
HNRS 2000

Underlying Causes of Louisiana’s Coastal Erosion

“Time is a force we often think of as making things better, able to heal all wounds” (Tidwell 291). Mike Tidwell’s quote summarizes a popular attitude held by most people in times of despair. With time comes the ability to cope with the loss of a loved one, the acceptance of failure, and intellectual growth and maturity. What Tidwell says about time in Louisiana, however, conflicts with the previously quoted description because “In Louisiana, the opposite is true: since that day a year ago… the state has lost 17,845 more acres of land” (291). This chilling statistic prevents us from accepting time as a natural healer and leads us to believe that it is, in fact, the most influential factor in the loss of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, fishing industry, and Cajun heritage. In Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell, evidence suggests the state’s failure to anticipate the problems from leveeing of the Mississippi River, the unintended consequences of the levees and mechanical drudging, and an overall attitude of denial are the main contributing factors in the destruction of Louisiana’s wetlands.
The most pressing problem overlooked by the engineers responsible for building the Mississippi River levees is the lack of nutrients deposited into the land surrounding the river during floods. The Mississippi River carries sediments and soil from all over the country downstream where it eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Along its route, the river deposited sediment that reinforced the surrounding land as well as creating new land. One estimate suggests that before leveeing, the Mississippi deposited an average of 85 million tons of sediments across coastal Louisiana and the wetlands each year. Parts of Louisiana, especially New Orleans, already lie below sea level. Increased erosion will only make the land lower, thus increasing flood levels and destruction from natural disasters. The construction that took place in the early 20th century only increased the disintegration of land. In 1927, water held in rudimentary levees that were constructed to aid in the prevention of floods rushed into 27,000 square miles of land and flooded them with thirty feet of water. With a thousand deaths, a million destroyed homes, and over a billion dollars in economic loss, the government decided to prevent this from happening again. By the 1930s, the Corps of Engineers tamed the river by building stronger levees, straightening the river’s channel, and constructing major floodways (127). No longer did the river flood or deposit nutrients back into the land. The new course of the river permanently carried the water to the Gulf, wasting 300 million tons of sediments every year. The leveeing of the Mississippi allowed a huge portion of the population in the coastal states to reside closer to the river without the fear of a massive deluge. Transportation of goods down the Mississippi into port cities such as New Orleans proved to be an asset to the economy and became essential to the culture and lifestyle of the people residing in bayou regions.
At the same time the lower Mississippi River was conquered by the levees, the Louisiana gold rush began with oil exploitation in the bayou regions. Extensive canal digging was initiated in the 1930s and continued for fifty years. The booming oil industry brought people and money to Louisiana, boosting its economy. Barges dredged one or two canals in nearly every stretch of marsh land (35). Although these canals allowed oil and natural gas to be discovered and transported, disastrous erosion was initiated. Portions of the marsh land became weakened and disintegrated in a short period of time. One canal has increased to over six times its original size in just forty years causing huge amounts of grass and earth to sink and deteriorate (36). These canals continue to increase in size day after day, chomping away land, regardless if they are being used to pump oil or not (118). Louisiana and the rest of the country have benefitted from these resources, but the remaining canals continue to exacerbate wetlands. People’s homes, property, and jobs are in jeopardy when it comes to the quick disappearance of this land. With the immediate success from the leveeing of the river and the economical benefits brought by dredging, it is easy to perceive why one would fail to anticipate the potential problems stemming from these creations.
Aside from the failure to foresee future problems, a series of unintended consequences resulted from levees and oil drilling. The encroaching salt water tide from the Gulf of Mexico contaminated soil and plants. Because the levees prevent new sediment from settling into the land, the formation of new plants and land becomes impossible. This saltwater intrusion also contaminates fresh drinking water. Consequences that have arisen for oystermen include the raising in salinity of nearby marshes, destroying salt-sensitive oyster beds. These destroyed beds contribute to the loss of a football field of land every twenty minutes in Louisiana equaling to a net loss of twenty-five square miles each year. Daily, fifty acres of grass falls below the water line resulting in water logged roots which disables the grass from performing its basic functions. Dissolved oxygen fails to reach the grass’s roots causing it to grow stunted and stressed (264). The collapse of this grass allows decomposition to occur rapidly. The disintegration of land contributes to the breakdown of barrier islands along the coast as well. These islands are essential in protecting populous areas of Louisiana from hurricanes. Without the islands stopping some of the massive force of hurricanes, Louisiana’s inland will receive a monumental amount of damage to property and even human life. Unintended consequences of earlier decisions made about the coastline of Louisiana have left this region in disarray. Fearing for their jobs, property, and life, Louisianans are forced to devise a radical plan to save the coastline before it is too late.
A key factor contributing to the lack of response both statewide and nationally stems from denial. Whether this denial comes from actual ignorance, or it is used as a means to dismiss the severity of the destruction, it influences the population’s views on restoration. At the first sign of land loss due to levees, a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that only a small amount of land near the mouth of the river was eroding and compared to the remainder of coastal Louisiana, no change in elevation resulted (126). This reassured the public, especially scientists and commercial industries such as oil companies. These findings influenced the notion held by many as “quasi equilibrium.” Simply stated, this concept argues that “the ‘depositional’ forces of the river far outweigh the ‘erosional’ forces of the Gulf of Mexico and the natural process of subsidence” (126). Even with the river leveed, loss of land would be barely noticeable and inconsequential to industries such as fishing or seafood and the overall culture of South Louisiana. Furthermore, the most shocking evidence of denial mentioned by Tidwell comes from the oil companies’ idea that they have, in no way, contributed to the immense amount of land lost. These oilmen are also indifferent to the disappearing marsh land as all oil and gas reserves are almost empty- fields becoming dry after being pumped for many decades (118). The apathetic attitude of oilmen cannot be explained by anything else except denial. Studies show that a third, possibly more, of land loss in Louisiana comes from erosion due to the industry’s thousands of miles of pipeline canals and channels (304). In fact, oil rigs and pipes that no longer drill or transport oil from the water still inflict damage on the land as channels continue to contribute to erosion. Unless this industry accepts responsibility for the damage it imposes on Louisiana’s land, nothing will be done. Oil provides money and jobs for Louisiana and is such a necessary resource to our world today that many people find it difficult to blame this prolific business for the destruction it is causing. Denial forces people to downplay what is happening to Louisiana’s shore which is arguably just as detrimental as the erosion itself. Nothing will be accomplished as long as the industries who have the influence and power to bring about positive change continue making excuses for their actions.
As Tidwell brings his book to a close, a short sentence strikes the reader and essentially drives home the point he makes throughout his book: “The traveler is supposed to go away, not the destination” (291). Tidwell described the harshness and intensity of the disappearance of Louisiana’s land by saying “…since that day a year ago when I first tossed my backpack onto a shrimp-boat bunk and walked happily barefoot across the decks, that state has lost 17,845 more acres of land” (291). This chilling statistic leaves the reader with an empty feeling. Unlike many endings of stories, Bayou Farewell lacks closure or a happy ending because this is an alarming situation. Unless the country as a whole gets involved in this dilemma, the United States will lose a unique part of its history and a vital part of its seafood industry. Because time fails to be beneficial to the coastline, immediate restorative actions are imperative. Bayou Farewell successfully brings about awareness, but it is up to the readers to disperse their newly acquired knowledge to aid in the prevention of future loss and the restoration of eroded land.

Works Cited Tidwell, Mike. Bayou Farewell. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.…...

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