Seeing Is Believing
Shea Penland is among those best suited to explain the delta's blues. Now a geologist at the University of New Orleans, he spent 16 years at L.S.U.; does contract work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which builds the levees; sits on federal and state working groups implementing coastal restoration projects; and consults for the oil and gas industry. His greatest credential, however, is that he knows the local folk in every little bayou town, clump of swamp and spit of marsh up and down the disintegrating coast--the people who experience its degradation every day.
Penland, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt on a mid-May morning, is eager to get me into his worn red Ford F150 pickup truck so we can explore what's eating the 50 miles of wet landscape south of New Orleans. The Mississippi River built the delta plain that forms southeastern Louisiana over centuries by depositing vast quantities of sediment every year during spring floods. Although the drying sands and silts would compress under their own weight and sink some, the next flood would rebuild them. Since 1879, however, the Corps of Engineers, at Congress's behest, has progressively lined the river with levees to prevent floods from damaging towns and industry. The river is now shackled from northern Louisiana to the gulf, cutting off the sediment supply. As a result, the plain just subsides below the encroaching ocean. As the wetlands vanish, so does New Orleans's protection from the sea. A hurricane's storm surge can reach heights of more than 20 feet, but every four miles of marsh can absorb enough water to knock it down by one foot.
The flat marsh right outside New Orleans is still a vibrant sponge, an ever changing mix of shallow freshwater, green marsh grasses and cypress swamp hung with Spanish moss. But as Penland and I reach the halfway point en route to the gulf, the sponge becomes seriously torn and waterlogged. Isolated roads on raised stone beds pass rusted trailer homes and former brothels along now flooded bayous; stands of naked, dead trees; and browned grasses and reaches of empty water.
Down in Port Fourchon, where the tattered marsh finally gives way to open gulf, the subsidence and erosion are aggressive. The lone road exists only to service a collection of desolate corrugated buildings where oil and natural-gas pipelines converge from hundreds of offshore wellheads. Countless platforms form a gloomy steel forest rising from the sea. To bring in the goods, the fossil fuel companies have dredged hundreds of miles of navigation channels and pipeline canals throughout the coastal and interior marshes. Each cut removes land, and boat traffic and tides steadily erode the banks. The average U.S. beach erodes about two feet a year, Penland says, but Port Fourchon loses 40 to 50 feet a year--the fastest rate in the country. The network of canals also gives saltwater easy access to interior marshes, raising their salinity and killing the grasses and bottomwood forests from the roots up. No vegetation is left to prevent wind and water from wearing the marshes away. In a study funded by the oil and gas industry, Penland documented that the industry has caused one third of the delta's land loss.
The Duet brothers know firsthand how various factors accelerate land loss beyond natural subsidence. Toby and Danny, two of Penland's local pals along our route, live on a 50-foot beige barge complex anchored in the middle of 15 square miles of broken marsh, some 20 miles northwest of Port Fourchon. Their family leased the land from oil companies, for fishing and hunting, 16 years ago when it was merely wet. Now it lies under five to eight feet of water. They filter rain for drinking water, process their own sewage, catch the food they eat and make money hosting overnight fishing parties for sportsmen. A dozen wellheads dot the marsh where Toby picks us up by boat. Heading out to the barge through one canal, he says, "I used to be able to spit to the mud on either side. Now they run big oil containers through here."�