La. is “Losing Ground,” and Big Oil is a big reason why


A lot of folks in Louisiana are talking today — the 9th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall — about a major investigation by the New Orleans-based website, The Lens, and the award-winning investigative-reporting outfit, ProPublica, looking at the dramatic loss of wetlands in my native state. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping element of the project is an interactive map that chronicles exactly how much wetland has become open sea since 1922. The accompanying article also paints a vivid picture of communities that have all but disappeared just in the lifespan of some of today’s senior citizens.

 “It happened so fast, I could actually see the difference day to day, month to month,” Ryan Lambert, a fishing guide in Buras, La., told the project. He was talking about the seawater rushing in where land has been sinking at a stunning rate of one inch every 30 months. If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, you know the two main culprits that are destroying our wetlands. One is the levee system that was created in the wake of the Great Flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, which interfered with Mother Nature by preventing future floods but blocking the flow of sediments that would replenish the marshy areas.

The other damage has been caused by a culprit that we ads a society could do much more about: Big Oil. Here’s what the piece has to say about that:

“Once the oil companies come in and started dredging all the canals, everything just started falling apart,” said Joseph Bourgeois, 84, who grew up and still lives in the area.

From 1930 to 1990, as much as 16 percent of the wetlands was turned to open water as those canals were dredged. But as the U.S. Department of the Interior and many others have reported, the indirect damages far exceeded that.

That includes an invasion of saltwater, more rapid crumbling of the shoreline, and so-called “spoil levees” that piled up the material from canal drudging and further altered the natural ebb and flow of water and sediment. Again, from the article:

 All this disrupted the delta’s natural hydrology — its circulatory system — and led to the drowning of vast areas. Researchers have shown that land has sunk and wetlands have disappeared the most in areas where canals were concentrated.

In the 1970s, up to 50 square miles of wetlands were disappearing each year in the areas with heaviest oil and gas drilling and dredging, bringing the Gulf within sight of many communities.

As the water expanded, people lived and worked on narrower and narrower slivers of land.

“There’s places where I had cattle pens, and built those pens … with a tractor that weighed 5,000 or 6,000 pounds,” said Earl Armstrong, a cattle rancher who grew on the river nine miles south of the nearest road. “Right now we run through there with airboats.”

The reason, of course, that we’re discussing this on the anniversary of Katrina is that the fast-disappearing wetlands are the natural barrier of protection that can slow down hurricanes. That’s not all: the onset of climate change and rising sea levels worldwide could now greatly accelerate the disappearance of Louisiana’s swamps. What’s frustrating, of course, is that Louisiana’s politicians have — so far, anyway — flubbed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something about it. As the article correctly notes, the high-stakes lawsuit brought by a New Orleans-based levee board against 97 oil and gas companies provided the framework for what could have been a comprehensive settlement, in which going forward Big Oil and Gas would pay to save wetlands, not work to destroy them. Instead, that effort was cut short by the craven politics of Gov. Bobby Jindal and a majority of the Louisiana Legislature.

The ProPublica/Lens investigation should be a wake-up call for Louisiana. We can’t wait for another Katrina, or for the rapid advance of climate change, to act on saving our wetlands.

Please check out the entire ProPublica/Lens project:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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