Outside of the larger spectre of climate change, the biggest environmental crisis in the United States is the melting of southern Louisiana into the ocean.* A combination of diking the Mississippi River to prevent flooding and facilitate commerce and petroleum companies challenging through the marshes have decimated this unique and beautiful ecosystem to the onslaught of seawater. The channeling causes erosion, the dikes prevent natural replenishing of the marshes. This is not only about some alligators either. A great deal of our seafood comes from the area, particularly our shrimp, oysters, and crayfish. It is also much more than an environmental issue. The bayous are home to one of America’s most unique cultures; without the environment that shaped it, that culture wil disappear.
This is a solvable problem, at least for now. The long-term implications of rising sea levels will cause problems down the road. But we could reengineer the Mississippi to flood in various places in its delta to create new marshland. The area can recover fairly quickly. In an age where New Orleans has proven vulnerable to hurricanes, this is all the more important because the marshes provided a buffer against storms, sucking down their power before the storms hit New Orleans. By 2005, the marshes’ ability to do this had been severely attenuated.
Randy Fertel has an op-ed laying out the legislative options, which I fully support. I also highly recommend Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell for an overview of both the environmental and cultural issues involved here.
* I know there’s some serious competition for biggest environmental crisis, with the strip mining of West Virginia the most obvious competitor. Not surprisingly, our insatiable demand for energy and to control nature to serve our economic desires is at the heart of both problems.