Working on the Wetlands: One Blade of Grass at a Time

Working on the Wetlands: One Blade of Grass at a Time
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Can planting grass and trees stem the tide of wetland loss in coastal Louisiana?

Amid rumors of oil slicks afloat in the Gulf of Mexico again, some colleagues from Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and I paid a return visit to Louisiana this week. Our purpose this time round was not to learn about the oil from the Deepwater Horizon accident, but to find out more about what people of the Louisiana bayous are doing about the inexorable loss of wetlands. (Read posts from my July trip here, here, here and here.)

Partnering to Restore Wetlands, Bit by Bit

Our first visit was to the site of the Fourchon Maritime Ridge restoration project located a bit north of Port Fourchon in LaFourche Parish. Run by an interesting alliance, the project appears to receive funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with dollars flowing through the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to "maintaining a sustainable balance in the health and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico."

Volunteer Matt Benoit, Plants Materials Coordinator for the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, unloads grass.

The project's work is being carried out as a partnership between the Greater LaFourche Port Commission (established by the state to facilitate economic growth of the port communities) and the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, a nonprofit aimed at the "preservation and restoration of the Barataria-Terrebonne estuarine system ... through the implementation of a science-based, consensus-driven plan." Also involved are the Bayou Grace folks we met on our last trip down here, who are providing some of the volunteers to plant the grass (see photos).

The idea of the project is to use dredged sediment to build a marsh-ridge system across the open waters north of Port Fourchon, which had once been contiguous wetlands.

Once established, the ridge would provide a "natural" levee against tidal surges as well as a wooded habitat for migratory songbirds winging their way through the area on their seasonal jaunts north and south.

Ridges are critical to a wetland ecosystem because it is along these higher elevations that trees can establish their root systems and grow without getting too much salt water. Such growth helps stabilize the coastline and offers protection to the wetlands behind the ridgelines. Such ridge systems, once common in coastal Louisiana years ago, have largely disappeared. The Fourchon Maritime Ridge is being built to replace the ridge that once spanned the same area.

Barren View Halfway Through

The incongruous chair.

The work at the site we visited was about halfway to completion and the surroundings felt lonely and barren -- lots of sand and the occasional bit of garbage but nothing living.

Especially incongruous was an overturned wooden chair lying on the sand, seemingly calling attention to the oil rigs jutting up in the distance. Couldn't help wondering how the chair got there, but I never got a chance to ask.

The sediment-building part of the work has been completed now. A ridge of about eight feet in elevation and a buffer of low-lying sand extending about 50 feet from the ridge to the open water have been put in place.

The next task is to stabilize the system against erosion and attack by the tide and storms. And that involves getting vegetation established, which is the primary job of the folks from the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program.

The Two Flavors of the Vegetation Planting

Along the low-lying areas adjoining the ridge, volunteers busily plant literally thousands of spindly stalks of marsh grass. If successful, those itty-bitty stalks will fill out to a dense grass -- a prospect my hosts from the estuary program assured me would happen in short order, no problem.

The other, more challenging part is to establish woody plants along the ridge to provide bird habitat. They are hoping to get trees like oaks growing, but that's not going to be easy. Their first attempt failed, but they are hopeful that with another protocol, perhaps one involving more fertilizer, they'll succeed. If not, they'll have to settle for low-lying shrubs.

Finger in the Dike or Ripple in the Stream?

Visiting sites like the Fourchon Maritime Ridge with folks volunteering their time and expertise to rebuild a little piece of Louisianan wetland is uplifting. These are great people working to solve a grave problem in their own small way, hoping that every little bit helps -- kind of like dropping a pebble in a stream and seeing the ripples spread seemingly ever outward.

But in addition to the ripples, another image came to mind during my visit -- the boy with his finger in the dike. Depending on whom you speak to, the region is losing a football field's worth of wetland every 30-45 minutes. Whoever is right, it's a lot of wetland loss. This little bit of wetland restoration comes nowhere near close to replacing what's being lost, and who's to say whether the ridge system they're building will even survive the forces that are washing away these critical marshes at such an alarming rate.

Cindy Brown, who runs the Gulf of Mexico program for The Nature Conservancy (and, I am proud to say, is a Nicholas School alum), applauds projects like this but believes they will eventually fall short without addressing the root causes of the wetlands problem -- the mess we have made of the Mississippi River with the dams and the levees and the channelization and the canals crisscrossing the delta.

The real and only solution, says Cindy, is "to get the river working again." I imagine that's going to take more than a handful of volunteers planting grass along the Fourchon Maritime Ridge. Calling all hands ...

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