AuthorRistroph, E. Barrett

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION 109 1. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ATCHAFALAYA RIVER BASIN 110 1.1. Ecosystem services 111 1.2. Economic services 111 1.3. Continuity of services 113 2. THREATS TO THE BASIN 113 2.1. Logging 113 2.2. Sedimentation 115 2.3. Unmitigated oil development 118 2.4. Climate change 120 3. CHALLENGES TO ADDRESSING THREATS 121 3.1. Management disagreements 121 3.2. Ownership 122 3.3. Agency influence 125 3.4. Lack of attention and funding 126 4. PROPOSED WAYS FORWARD 127 CONCLUSION 130 INTRODUCTION

Louisiana is losing its wetlands. Recognizing the detriment of this loss to ecosystems and economies, the State of Louisiana has invested heavily in coastal wetland restoration. For example, in 2019, the state and federal government spent more than $450,000 per acre to create bird habitat on Queen Bess Island (west of the mouth of the Mississippi River). (1) The projected lifespan of the island is only a couple of decades, after which the island may be under water due to sea level rise. (2) The Queen Bess Island restoration is one of many such short-lived projects that the state and federal government are funding in the name of wetland restoration. (3) While Queen Bess Island is now part of a State-managed refuge, much of the land for other projects are privately owned, and restoration comes with no easement or conditions to ensure that landowners will maintain the restored habitat. (4)

Meanwhile, about one hundred miles northwest of Queen Bess Island, some of North America's most important wetland habitats are seriously degrading due to human activity. These wetlands are part of the Atchafalaya Basin--the largest contiguous block of wetlands in the United States. (5) The Basin is situated along the Atchafalaya River, a 135-mile long distributary of the Red and Mississippi Rivers that empties into the Gulf of Mexico. (6) Decades of noncompliance with development permits, piling of dredged material ("spoil") along canal rights-of-way, and lack of enforcement have resulted in sedimentation that has eliminated some wetlands in the Basin and devastated water quality in others.

This article explains what is happening to the Basin, why it matters, and actions that state and federal government entities could take to preserve it. The focus is on the most ecologically vital parts of the Atchafalaya Basin, which include some 885,000 acres of forested wetlands and 517,000 acres of marshland. (7) The article expands on work by The Nature Conservancy's Bryan Piazza published in 2014, (8) which called attention to the importance of the Basin and threats to its continuity, by delving deeper into the political forces that hamper Basin restoration. It also draws heavily on the work of Dean Wilson, the executive director of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, who has worked with a coalition of environmental groups to advocate for Basin conservation. The article admittedly oversimplifies some of the complexities of Basin management for the sake of brevity, but preserves the nuance and overarching stakeholder disagreements regarding management goals. Section 2 explains the ecological and economic importance of the Basin. Section 3 outlines historic and ongoing threats to the Basin, while Section 4 explains the obstacles to addressing these threats. Finally, Section 5 discusses proposed restoration recommendations.


    Traveling through the waters of the Atchafalaya by boat is akin to stepping into a postcard of an iconic landscape that is so often associated with Louisiana culture. Cypress trees rise from the middle of the water, their knees poking out of the surface, their branches decorated with moss. There remain just a handful of the old growth trees--those that are hollow and provide homes for the last black bears in this part of North America. The cypress trees here have withstood decades of hurricanes and lightning strikes. Each season is different, from the winters when the waters can dry up completely to the lively springs when the swamp is a symphony of migrating birds. Place-based peoples, including the Cajuns, have made their living from this ecosystem for generations. (9)

    1.1. Ecosystem services

    The Atchafalaya Basin is among the most productive fish and wildlife areas in North America, (10) supporting 35% of all forested wetlands in the lower Mississippi River floodplain. (11) These wetlands filter pollution and serve as a carbon sink. (12) The Basin's cypress-tupelo swamps are adapted to withstand severe weather events, providing a buffer to slow storm surges from hurricanes and tropical storms. (13)

    Crawfish are a critical part of this ecosystem, serving as food for fish and birds. (14) Thousands of migratory birds--almost 300 species--rely on the Basin for habitat. (15) The Basin also provides habitat for white-tailed deer, bobcat, coyote, alligator, beaver, mink, otter, muskrat, armadillo, fox, opossum, and Louisiana black bear, along with hundreds of other fish and wildlife species. (16)

    1.2. Economic services

    Together with the Mississippi River, the Atchafalaya River has the largest drainage basin in North America and the third largest basin in the world. (17) The Basin is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a critically important spillway: it has the capacity to absorb immense quantities of water, protecting South Louisiana and much of the Lower Mississippi River Valley from major Mississippi River floods. After the Great Flood of 1927 along the Mississippi River, levees were constructed to contain the Basin, (18) and in 1964, the original Old River Control Structure (known as the Low Sill) came into operation to control water flow to the Atchafalaya. (19) The Auxiliary Structure was added in 1986, along with a hydropower plant in 1990. (20) Through these structures, the Army Corps allocated 30% of the water flow to the Atchafalaya River and 70% to the Mississippi River. (21) The goal was to ensure that the Atchafalaya would not overtake the Mississippi River, which would eliminate the established communities, ports, and industries depending on the Mississippi River's flow. (22)

    About 30 miles downriver from the Old River Control Structure is the Morganza Spillway. The Army Corps is able to divert additional water through the Morganza Spillway and Floodway towards the Atchafalaya Basin in order to prevent flooding to the southeast along the Mississippi River. (23) The Army Corps has opened the floodgates of the Morganza Spillway only twice--during the floods of 1973 and 2011. (24) Further downriver is an additional floodway, the West Atchafalaya Floodway, which has never been opened. (25)

    Beyond flood control, the Basin supports substantial recreational and commercial fisheries. (26) Approximately 90% of wild crawfish sold in Louisiana comes from the Atchafalaya Basin, enabling the cultural survival of the Cajun fishing communities who harvest the crawfish. (27) The average annual commercial harvest is estimated at 80 to 100 million pounds. (28) The Basin is also important for oil and gas production and transport, with 1 million barrels of oil and 43,500 million cubic feet of natural gas produced annually as of 2011. (29)

    1.3. Continuity of services

    In the face of sea level rise, erosion, and subsidence, Queen Bess Island Restoration and similar coastal restoration projects undertaken by the State are not likely to last longer than a couple of decades. Projects to divert sediment from the Mississippi River will have longer lasting effects, but will eventually be overtaken by the pace of sea level rise. (30) Coastal wetlands losses throughout Louisiana are projected to range from 42% to 99% by 2100. (31) In contrast, wetlands at the Atchafalaya River Delta are projected to persist under all but the highest scenario for sea-level rise by 2100. (32) It follows that wetlands in the "interior" of the Atchafalaya Basin should withstand sea level rise for a much longer time, providing important ecosystem and economic services to the residents of Louisiana and beyond. But, as discussed in the next section, there are a number of historic and ongoing threats to the Basin.


    2.1. Logging

    While cypress trees make for beautiful furniture and homes, their harvest can never be sustainable. Cypress trees grow slowly over hundreds of years. Saplings do not survive when submerged for long periods. (33) Prolonged flooding resulting from the levee system has increased submergence in parts of the Basin, decreasing sapling survival rates. (34) Since they grow so slowly, young trees cannot compete with faster growing invasive species and predators such as nutria. (35)

    Prior to European settlement in Louisiana and the growth of the timber industry, there were an estimated 8 to 10 million acres of old growth cypress forest in the state. (36) By 1848, only about 2.3 million acres remained. (37) Logging peaked in the 1910s, eliminating virtually all of the old growth forest. (38) Only about 840,000 acres of forests (including cypress as well as other trees) were able to regenerate after the era of intensive logging. (39)

    In 2000, companies began logging the remaining second growth cypress and tupelo forests. (40) By 2006, cypress-tupelo forests were logged at a rate of 20,000 acres per year and over 83,000 acres had been logged in the Atchafalaya and Maurapas Basins areas alone. (41) None of the areas logged grew back with cypress-tupelo forests. (42)

    Rather than being used to build traditional homes and furniture (as claimed by the timber industry), the timber was converted to mulch and marketed as "environmentally friendly." (43) Atchafalaya Basinkeeper spearheaded a coalition of groups known as the Cypress Shield Campaign. The Campaign exposed the origin of the "environmentally friendly" mulch by following logging trucks and photo documenting the mulch production, from the sawmills to the sales at Home Depot, Lowes, and Wal-Mart. (44)...

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