The big, potentially positive story in Louisiana environmental circles has been the push to restore the state’s depleted wetlands. It had become increasingly clear that something had gone terribly wrong in the Bayou State, where the swamps define a way of life — and also perform a very important role. These reedy marshes — as regular readers know well by now — are Louisiana’s natural defense barrier. But they’ve been under attack from humankind for at least a century, maybe longer — from pollution such as oil spills, from runoff, from dredging and other industrial activities. The loss of so many square miles of wetlands has left my native state exposed — to direct hits from the frequent tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico and, increasingly, to rising sea levels.
That’s why state officials have committed themselves to an ambitious long-term $50 billion plan to save the state’s wetlands. State and local officials are looking to sue the largest oil and gas companies, to force them to keep their promise to restore the marshes that were destroyed through their energy exploration. And Louisiana also has a head start toward its restoration goal, thanks to the billions the state is receiving in BP settlement money. But now there’s a new problem. A mystery pest is devouring the marshlands before the restoration program can even get off the ground. To say that officials are alarmed would be a gross understatement:
Roseau cane, a wetland grass considered vital to the health of Louisiana’s precarious coast, is dying at an unprecedented rate in south Plaquemines Parish. Since fall, thousands of acres of cane across about 50 miles of the lower Mississippi Delta have gone from green to brown. Many areas, such as the one Newman found Friday (April 7) near Venice, are now shallow, open water.
The likely cause: a foreign bug that’s sucking the life-giving juices out of the cane. State and university scientists have been trying for weeks to identify the species, thought to be a type of scale or mealybug. As yet there is no plan to eradicate it. The roseau cane plague is only the latest in the long line of threats to Louisiana’s crumbling coast. Storm surge, rising seas and wetlands canals dug by oil and gas explorers are considered the main culprits, so the state is pushing a $50 billion, 50-year master plan to mitigate further losses.
At the Pass a Loutre Wildlife Management Area on the far south end of the delta, the cane die-off is especially bad. “Of the the 110,000 acres we have there, [the insect] has affected easily 80 percent,” said Vaughan McDonald, a coastal biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Known for its soil-building prowess, the cane serves as a living, growing bulwark against land loss. That’s of vital importance to Plaquemines, which has lost about 250 square miles over the past 60 years to coastal erosion and land subsidence. The cane resists floods and spreads easily. Its extensive root system acts to both “lift” and hold soil in place, and its dense concentration of stalks catch and hold passing river sediment. “More than any other marsh species, [roseau cane] has the potential to withstand sea level rise,” Mendelssohn said.
Why is this happening now? The experts don’t really know. It’s possible that some of the environmental issues that we frequently talk about here, such as the Gulf oil spills or the changes in water and land temperature that have come with climate change, has something to do with this. But it could also be some other cause, such as a change in migratory patterns that brought this non-native pest to our shores. Whatever the reason, this infestation is the worst possible development at the worst possible time for the Golf. I only hope our scientists can resolve this puzzle and come up with a strategy before it’s too late.
Read more about the pest that’s devouring Louisiana’s roseau cane at NOLA.com: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2017/04/roseau_cane_dying_in_mississippi_delta.html
Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice