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Save Louisiana

[ 44 ] January 28, 2012 |

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.

Comments (44)

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  1. West of the Cascades says:

    think you meant to say petroleum companies CHANNELING through the marshes …

  2. bph says:

    We have met the enemy and they are the Corps.

    I wonder if appealing to cultural values for saving an environment will work. People maybe more motivated to saving a way of life, especially of a group of people that have some romantic appeal (and are white). Has this been tried before?

    • DocAmazing says:

      I hate to be negative, but the good people of Louisiana have expressed their political desires in the recent past and have not been kind to people running on environmental platforms.

      The citizens of that state are not passive victims. They have some responsibility for the conditions they find themselves in. It’s not like the realities of global warming or habitat loss were kept secret.

      • John Protevi says:

        Hey, I’ll be the last to absolve my fellow citizens of Louisiana of all responsibility here, but the effects of the wetlands degradation processes, and hence the right to intervene, go way, way, beyond state lines. (I would add disruption of migratory waterfowl patterns to the list of dangers.)

        I’m not sure I have the right federalist language to express this, but Louisiana doesn’t belong to the Louisianians, it belongs to all of us. (And the verb “belongs” here isn’t right either, unless it can take on a stewardship sense.) But I hope you see what I’m after.

      • John Protevi says:

        Following up: actually, what is lacking in Louisiana is the desire to regulate the petroleum industry. The desire to save the wetlands is actually very popular, and failure to have a good plan to do so tends to be blamed on the feds. So David Vitter, for instance, wants very much to be seen as trying to co-ordinate federal action on the wetlands: http://www.americaswetlandresources.com/voices/speeches/DavidVitter.html

      • Hogan says:

        The Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t answer to the voters of Louisiana.

    • Murc says:

      We have met the enemy and they are the Corps.

      You know, I constantly see people hating on the Army Corps of Engineers, and I continually remain baffled as to the reasons why.

      As near as I can tell, they produce well-engineered, robust, highly functional geo-engineering projects that usually are built quite cheaply as these go, work as intended, and last for ages. They don’t have a lobbying group or throw their weight around in Congress looking to get them to spend money on projects the country doesn’t need. In fact, if I recall correctly the Corps of Engineers often complains that they don’t have the manpower to do everything Congress asks of them at the high standards they hold themselves to.

      Yeah, a number of the projects the Army Corps has been involved in have had deleterious environmental side effects, but I’m not sure that’s something that can be blamed on them. What are they supposed to do, tell their superiors to go fuck off then they’re ordered to dam a river somewhere?

      • mpowell says:

        Yeah, leave it to Louisiana to blame it on the least blameworthy party involved.

        My understanding is that left to it’s own devices, the Mississippi will actually change course and find a different path to the ocean. And I’m not talking about a particularly long time scale. Sometimes the natural path of an ecology and advanced human habitation are really not compatible.

        • John Protevi says:

          Look, there’s both misplaced popular anger and reasoned discourse in Louisiana. The recent complaints about the Corps have to do with Mr Go and with denying that the NO levees collapsed rather than were overtopped. Ivor Van Heerden’s book is a good place to start.

          • Murc says:

            You know, I’ve literally been meaning to read that.

            I’ve actually been puzzled as to the Corps of Engineers behavior over the levees. My understanding (and you seem to know more about this than I, but please, correct me if I’m wrong) is that the levees did exactly what they were supposed to during Katrina; they stood up to the punishment they were designed to stand up to, and then they collapsed. Why not cop to that? If anything you’d think they’d take some pride in their stuff preforming to spec.

            They WERE designed to withstand less punishment than necessary, but that’s a totally different thing.

            • John Protevi says:

              It’s a huge issue and you’re right the Corps shouldn’t be singled out. But they shouldn’t be exempt from criticism either. I know that’s a platitude, but what are you going to do?

            • Richard says:

              No. Two of the levees collapsed, one was overtopped. If all three were overtopped, then no fault with the Corps since they were only built to withstand a Category 3 but that is not what happened. The Corps bears responsibility for construction of the two levees that that partially collapsed

      • bph says:

        The Corps, like any federal agency, has a fair amount of input into its own activities. They are not just quietly doing whatever the executive branch or Congress asks of them.

        Because the Corps are a bunch of fantastically good civil engineers, they look at all issues as one that can be solved given enough cement and steel. (Just like the EPA views all problems as solvable by more oversight and regulation, or the DoE believing all problems can be solved with lots of nuclear materials). The Corps knew full well what would happen when they did what they did to the Mississippi. They even built elaborate models of the whole river system to test their engineering. Just cause they did a great job at the work, doesn’t mean they are not part of the long term environmental problems that resulted.

        • Murc says:

          The Corps knew full well what would happen when they did what they did to the Mississippi.

          They did, but… I mean, so what?

          If the Corps had concealed the consequences of what they were going to do, that would be problematic. But as I understand it, they tested the hell out of their engineering (as you said) and issued public reports to that effect.

          It was just that nobody really gave a damn. Yeah, they’re part of the long term environmental problems that resulted, but that seems a little bit like blaming the guys who build prisons for the fact that guards chain people to radiators and kick the shit out of them.

  3. Jonathan says:

    The problem isn’t solvable. The problem has a technical solution. It lacks a practical solution. By that, I mean that there is no way our society can act to save the wetlands.

    It’s the same way with climate change. The course of action we need to take to mitigate it is obvious. The composition and structure of our society forbids that course.

    We’re all going to die because we’re the ones doing to dying.

  4. firehat says:

    There are more-removed economic victims in this scenario. The channeling/diking of the Mississippi causes the river stream to enter the Gulf at an increased velocity, essentially spewing silt into the larger body of water. From there it is carried on the currents to Texas, where it has turned Galveston’s and other Texas beaches a muddy brown. The silt that is naturally meant to replenish the wetlands in Louisiana is not able to do that and has also despoiled what a century ago were clean beaches with comparatively clear water. It’s been like that so long that most people assume the upper Texas coast’s beaches are either severely polluted or naturally muddy. Neither is the case.

  5. DrDick says:

    The downside (and one reason that this is not likely to get fixed) is that if you undo the dikes, etc., that are killing the delta, the Mississippi will shift its main channel to the Atchafalaya River, which it has been trying to do for about a century, and leave New Orleans stranded.

    • John Protevi says:

      No one would want to undo the levees. The rerouting of the Mississippi would be a nightmare scenario. The idea is to have selective floodplains below New Orleans.

      • DrDick says:

        From what I have seen and heard about the issue, however, the effort to keep the Mississippi from changing course is a major factor in the decline of the wetlands. Of course that information could be erroneous as I am not an expert.

        • John Protevi says:

          Oh, you’re completely right there. And I’m no expert either. But letting the river go straight to the Gulf is completely off the table. You wouldn’t know where to start to calculate just the economic costs. The port system of the lower Louisiana is among the largest in the world. Losing it the way it would be lost if the river changed course would have global impact.

          • Murc says:

            In an ideal world, we would begin long-term projects involving the entirety of the Mississippi and its tributary waters designed, over a period of decades, to transition from their current state into one that is far more environmentally friendly and sustainable while still preserving the viability of the river itself and its terminus in the Gulf of Mexico for commercial and industrial shipping. The expertise exists to do this and the costs would be a drop in the bucket compared to the long-term benefits.

            Sadly, not enough people care about this to even get proposals off the ground.

            • John Protevi says:

              Yes. We need multiple spatial and temporal scales in our remediation plans. Local / regional / national and short / medium / long term have to be integrated.

              • Murc says:

                What really pisses me off is that we’re GOOD at stuff like this.

                This isn’t like economics, which is an imprecise science at best. This is ENGINEERING. And we’re fucking amazing at it. We are in fact the gold standard. We are more than capable of harnessing our watersheds in ways that are environmentally friendly, sustainable in the long term, and wildly productive from a commercial and industrial standpoint.

                We just DON’T.

            • DrDick says:

              Removing dikes & levees in rural areas upstream in the Midwest is also an important piece of this, as the removal of wetlands and flood zones upstream have increased the river flows downstream in Louisiana, which contributes to the problems there.

  6. Ian says:

    From John McPhee, at –25 years old, but clearly as relevant as ever:

    In an average year, some two hundred million tons of sediment are in transport in the river. This is where the foreland Rockies go, the western Appalachians. Southern Louisiana is a very large lump of mountain butter, eight miles thick where it rests upon the continental shelf, half that under New Orleans, a mile and a third at Old River. It is the nature of unconsolidated sediments to compact, condense, and crustally sink. So the whole deltaic plain, a superhimalaya upside down, is to varying extents subsiding, as it has been for thousands of years. Until about 1900, the river and its distributaries were able to compensate for the subsidence with the amounts of fresh sediment they spread in flood. Across the centuries, distribution was uneven, as channels shifted and land would sink in one place and fill in somewhere else, but over all the land building process was net positive….What was a net gain before 1900 has by now been a net loss for nearly a hundred years, and the Louisiana we have known—from Old River and the Acadian world to Bayou Baptiste Collette—is sinking. Sediments are being kept within the mainline levees and shot into the Gulf at the rate of three hundred and fifty-six thousand tons a day—shot over the shelf like peas through a peashooter, and lost to the abyssal plain. As waters rise ever higher between levees, the ground behind the levees subsides, with the result that the Mississippi delta plain has become an exaggerated Venice, two hundred miles wide—its rivers, its bayous, its artificial canals a trelliswork of water among subsiding lands.

  7. Clay says:

    As a lifelong resident of New Orleans, thank you, thank you, thank you for highlighting this issue to a larger, national audience.

    http://beta.lpb.org/index.php?/site/programs/turning_the_tide

    Turning the Tide has started to air on PBS. It’s a great documentary about all the complexities around the issue. It interviews every major expert about the coast and doesn’t pull punches. Well worth a watch (and you can in the upper-right corner).

  8. dilbert dogbert says:

    Just drove through the other delta today – the California Delta. As a point of reference Sacramento is 40 feet above sea level and some 100 miles inland. Our house in Palo Alto was 2 miles from the bay and 40 feet above sea level.
    The California Delta contains some of the most productive land in America. I also noticed a rig drilling for gas so it has some other valuable resources.
    The tide was high as I drove home on the levees towards Rio Vista and could see the farm land was below river level. With sea levels rising and a snow and rain mageggin in the Sierras someday we may have a large inland sea to sail our boats in.

  9. commerce and petroleum companies challenging through the marshes

    What word was that auto-corrected from? “Charging”?

  10. Sverdlov says:

    Part 3: Environmental disaster and private profit

    <emThis article is the third of a series on the history, economy, social and environmental conditions in the Appalachian region of the United States. Part 1 was published on July 22, part 2 on July 24, part 4 on July 30, and part 5 on August 3. World Socialist Web Site reporters recently visited the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia and interviewed residents on their conditions of life. Accompanying interviews and related material are posted in four parts here: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5.

    <emMillions of dollars worth of coal heaped in uncovered train cars pass through impoverished Appalachian towns each day, covering the ground and coating buildings and automobiles with coal dust. The enormous wealth produced in the region is owned and controlled by a few large companies and individuals, while the majority of the population lives from day to day, many without basic necessities.

    </emIn the pursuit of greater profits, the coal industry has expanded its surface mining operations in the coalfields region. Since 1999, coal operators have acquired surface mining permits on some half a million acres in Kentucky and West Virginia, primarily in the coalfields region. This has boosted extraction rates with the employment of far fewer workers, while worsening the environmental health and public infrastructure. The political establishment and regulatory agencies from the federal level down, along with the trade unions, have facilitated this state of affairs…
    http://wsws.org/articles/2010/jul2010/app3-j27.shtml

    • Murc says:

      Listen, if I wanted a lot of badly formatted links to the World Socialist Web Site, I’d read Steven Brust’s blog six years ago.

  11. Canvasback says:

    Was this written with software? If so, it needs a human editor.
    “companies challenging through the marshes”
    “A combination . . . have”
    “decimated . . . to the onslaught” ???
    “implications . . . will cause problems”
    ” an age where” Do you mean ‘when’?
    And the final sentence refers to two demands but uses the singular case. You have the passion and all the right buzzwords. Now, clear thinking will lead to clearer writing.

  12. Joel Dan Walls says:

    The excerpt from John McPhee contains a peculiar reference to subsidence going on for “thousands of years”…more like as long as the Mississippi River has existed and been dumping sediment into the Gulf of Mexico. Land subsidence in a delta is, geologically speaking, entirely normal. Loose sediments compact over time under their own weight. On a geological time scale, subsidence is offset by more sediment being dumped on the delta–exactly the process that all the engineering is intended to prevent. Still, it’s silly to blame the Corps of Engineers: they’re just trying to satisfy people’s fantasy that it’s possible to live on a floodplain.

    http://www.nola.com/speced/lastchance/multimedia/flashlandloss1.swf

  13. [...] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}I found the comment section on my bayou post of yesterday interesting for a couple of reasons, including that saving the marshes is an impossible task. This really is not true. The U.S. Army [...]

  14. ukash says:

    reasons, including that saving the marshes is an impossible task. This really is not true. The U.S. Arm

  15. ukash says:

    Was this written with software? If so, it needs a human editor.
    “companies challenging through the marshes”
    “A combination . . . have”
    “decimated . . . to the onslaught” ???
    “implications . . . will cause problems”
    ” an age where” Do you mean ‘when’?
    And the final sentence refers to two demands but uses the singular case. You have the passion and all the right buzzwords. Now, clear thinking will lead to clearer writing.

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