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Louisiana marshland slipping away

By Marc Kaufman

It happened so quickly. Our boat got stuck in the mud in the midst of Louisiana marshland, and some of us jumped out to push. We were in an area once known as River's Edge, but the river (or bayou) is now gone because the marsh is gone -- just as large swaths of Mississippi Delta marsh are disappearing around the region. The broad expanse is now all water, much of it shallow.

The mud sucked down our feet, but only a foot or two. The boat started to break free and then suddenly the water and mud got much deeper and I was up to my neck in the bayou. Some welcome hands came out of the boat and helped haul me up and release me from the slippery grasp of the bayou mud.

My brief encounter with the marshlands brought home a central and sad fact about one of the most fertile and remarkable parts of America: It is disappearing at a dispiriting rate. There are still some 2 million acres of the marshes that incubate shrimp, oysters and fish, but that's 1 million acres less than a century ago. Since the 1930s, the loss of marshlands to the Gulf of Mexico has been about as large as the state of Delaware.

Our captain, Carey O'Neil, was born and raised in the marshland, and he has watched for four decades as the grasses and land have disappeared. We would pass by wooden poles standing in the now-deep water, and he would explain they used to be part of a wharf, maybe five years ago. Now, they're about 800 feet from the shore. "Katrina did some of that, but it's a lot more than the hurricane," O'Neil said. "It happens all the time."

The causes are complex and controversial. Forcing the nearby Mississippi River to stay within the confines of stone levees definitely set off dynamics that harm the marshes, but so did canal digging, development of all sorts and the setting of hundreds of pipelines from offshore rigs into terminals. Laying the pipes involves shooting substantial amounts of saltwater into the freshwater or brackish marshes, and the salt is said to kill the grasses. The marshes historically have protected areas further inland -- and the city of New Orleans -- from the full force of hurricanes. Now, fewer acres of marshland means less protection.

Despite all this, and the presence of innumerable pipeline pumping stations, vents and depots, the marshes remain a marvel of birds (egrets, herons, plovers), of alligators leaping into the water from shore and of unmatched plant energy. Many parts remain a labyrinth where, if you don't have a knowledgeable captain, you could easily get lost for a long time.

But the weight of the degradation is hard to ignore. In several spots, we saw a couple of elegant cypress trees standing knee-deep in the water. The dead trunks of others nearby suggest they won't be around long, either. Cypresses grow on land, but the land is disappearing.


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 |  May 8, 2010; 12:10 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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