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Mississippi River Delta Dilemma

Marshland is vanishing from the legendary estuary at an alarming rate, but efforts are underway to protect this wildlife paradise.

Mississippi River Delta Dilemma

The Mississippi River Delta, as one of the largest wetlands and wildlife habitats on Earth, is losing ground quickly. (Photo By: Latendresse Media)

News that the great Mississippi Delta—used by millions of migrating fowl each year—is vanishing should fill a waterfowler’s heart with terror and dismay. Even if you’ve never been there and experienced its world-class waterfowl hunting, the word “disappearing” should make you shudder. It may just be the single most critical piece of habitat for waterfowl on earth, a place of mythical status. There are few places where you can experience an epic duck shoot and then leave from a dock and catch a mess of speckled trout, tuna, catfish or bass.

While most of us have heard the Delta is declining at an alarming rate of a single football field every 100 minutes, there still is a glimmer of hope. “When I look at an old map of the Delta and find small islands where my dad used to take me duck hunting, it’s sad,” said Erin Brown, Sportsmen Outreach Coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation. “I can hop in a boat and drive out to those locations, but they are gone—submerged underwater— likely lost forever.”




The Problem 

The reasons for this massive loss of land are many. They include sea-level rise, subsidence, saltwater intrusion, events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, invasive species, and side effects of the region’s current levee system. And once it’s under pure salt water, it is often claimed by commercial oyster operations, who seed lucrative oyster beds. Pretty tough to reclaim at the point, as the oyster companies have powerful lobbyists, even if the science exists.


What's being done to remedy the problem? Enter Vanishing Paradise (VP). Founded in 2009, in a joint effort between the National Wildlife Federation and Ducks Unlimited, Vanishing Paradise launched after Hurricane Katrina. Then, in 2010, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, more funding for VP became available. After the massive spill, efforts started to ramp up to begin restoring coastal Louisiana.   

According to Brown, Vanishing Paradise is part of the Restore the Mississippi Delta Campaign under the National Wildlife Federation umbrella. This campaign is a joint effort between three national non-profits (National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund) and two local non-profits (Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and Ponchartrain Conservancy and Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana).  

“It’s a strange community of bedfellows in some ways,” said Bill Cooksey, Sportsmen Outreach Coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation. “The great thing is we are all working together to achieve a common goal. Restoration of the Delta will help the ducks and other wildlife and frontline communities on the Delta."

Mississippi River Delta
The main problem is the loss of land mass in the Delta, as much of it is now under water. (Photo By: CLP Media/Shutterstock.com)

How?  

“We started the CPRA,” Brown added. “This is the Costal Protection Restoration Authority, and under this banner, we have a Coastal Master Plan. This is a blueprint that is going to help us restore our coasts. Every seven years, the plan is revised, and it's full of so many different projects that include: marsh creation, sediment diversion, saltwater diversion, freshwater diversion, building levees, raising homes, and hydraulic restoration, to name a few.”

It sounds like a lot, and it is, but all these projects must work in tandem if the master plan is ever to come to fruition. “You can’t go dredge a bunch of sediment and create a new marsh when you don’t have anything that is constantly going to nourish that sediment," Brown continued. "Sediment diversions are critical. In laymen’s terms, sediment diversions reconnect the Mississippi River to the back marshes, which was historically how Louisiana was built. When the river was leveed off in 1927, the distribution of sediment was reduced by the levees. By reconnecting the river to the marsh, we can build and sustain land.”  


Building land lost to water isn’t easy, but currently, Vanishing Paradise is working on getting the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion put in place. This project will cost billions of dollars but is critical to help restore lost land along the coast. Currently, any sediment, which is essential to making new land and helping restore marshes not diverted, goes right off the Continental Shelf. The Continental Shelf extends from the coast to depths between 330 and 660 feet. Cooksey, pointed out he "didn’t see the Shelf filling up anytime soon."

“If we can get this project up and running, we are talking about, roughly, a 50,000-acre gain of land in the future,” Cooksey said. “It will have some immediate impacts, not all positive, on certain groups such as the commercial fisherman, and there will be mitigation put in place to help. There will be resistance and pushback. However, most science agrees that building land and restoring the Delta is what needs to happen."

Naturally, land loss isn’t a good thing. Land loss means fewer marshes, and that is critical habitat for waterfowl and much more wildlife. However, the Delta is also facing other issues that will directly affect wintering fowl. Cooksey noted that crop diversion from rice to sugar cane had reduced the amount of feed for ducks. There are also several rice farms along the Delta that have turned to crawfish farming. Once shallow rice farms, where ducks could feed, have been deepened for the crawfish.  


“We are also fighting a battle with invasive species, like Giant Salvinia,” said Cooksey. “This is a large aquatic fern. The first Duck Commander ever filmed was in the Maurepas Swamp. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to buy a duck in that area. Giant Salvinia has completely taken over the marsh. The marsh went from a major mallard wintering area to dead in just a couple of years. When you take out a massive wintering area for a pile of ducks, they will adjust their migration. You can’t lose a football field every 100 minutes and expect everything to remain as it once was.”

Take a breath. This is a lot to digest. If you've spent time in the Delta, this intel hits close to home. If you hail from another area of the country, it should, as a sportsman and conservationist, send chills down your spine. Here’s another massive piece of data to digest: Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost over 2,000 square miles of land. That's roughly the size of Delaware.  

“We must also mention that in this part of the world, we have a little thing called hurricanes,” Brown said. “Last year was one of worst hurricane seasons on record, and every time we get a hurricane, it just further rolls away the marsh.”  

What’s the Grand Vision?  

This problem can’t be fixed overnight. Building new marsh in Louisiana and other areas along the coast can be accomplished, but much more can be done to sustain the land that remains. If projects launch and people get involved, these projects can be successful. Getting rid of levees is not an option. Levees protect cities, towns, and homes. However, projects like the Mid-Barataria will lead to stability and sustainability.  

“When it comes to protecting the Delta, instant gratification isn’t a reality,” Brown said. “We need to support the Coastal Master Plan. It won’t be a single victory. We need multiple victories spread out over time. Fifty years down the road, we could see some land gain if we can push forward with this master plan and follow the revisions added to the plan. Of course, there will be projects launched that develop rapidly, and will show somewhat immediate results.”

Mallard ducks flying
The goal of all participating conservation parties is to preserve the integrity of waterfowl species and wetland habitat, in additional to a multitude of additional wildlife that utilize this important estuary. (Photo By: Steve Oehlenschlager)

What Can I Do? 

Vanishing Paradise is the sportsmen arm of the National Wildlife Federation advocating for Louisiana’s coastal issues and issues across the Gulf Coast. According to Cooksey, the organization isn’t a boots-on-the-ground organization. Of course, VP isn’t scared of going out and rolling up its sleeves, but its primary purpose is to elevate sportsmen's voice—both local and nationwide—to gain the political will to do this work. If you want to join the fight, visit vanishingparadise.org and click the Get Involved tab. Together, we can save the Delta.  

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