The Mississippi River Delta, the seventh largest deltaic region in the world, was built over 6,000 years, created from annual deposits of fresh water, sediments and nutrients as the river periodically flooded. These deposits are derived from a drainage basin comprising 41 percent of the continental United States.
From the Mississippi’s waters, an amazingly complex ecosystem of freshwater swamp, saltwater marshes and forests grew into 4 million acres, or 6,000 square miles of wetlands, an area twice the size of the Everglades, an area that represents 25 percent of the nation’s coastal wetlands in the lower 48 states and 40 percent of its saltwater marshes. There is little wonder it has come to be referred to as America’s WETLAND.
Through the centuries, this fragile wetland has been subsiding under its own weight, only to be rebuilt annually by new sediments and nutrients, the natural process for sustainability. All that changed after the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded to public demand for protection by building a vast levee system along the banks of the Mississippi River Valley, securing the promise of federal flood protection.
Historic documents show that at the time engineers and scientists raised concerns that the future of the Mississippi Delta and prolific wetlands would hang in the balance but the outcry for action for the massive public works project for levee construction prevailed. The ensuing years would see a complex system of locks and dams built by the federal government, trapping sediment, withholding valuable land-building resources, and starving the natural process of nutrients and sediments that would limit building the Delta.
The federal government also built jetties at the river’s mouth to carry the sediments out over the Outer Continental Shelf. The idea was that natural scouring would help maintain this critical navigation corridor. The result is that about 160 million tons of sediment are jettisoned off the continental shelf and lost into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico each year. Man-altered and federally-sponsored programs, advancing subsidence, trapping of sediments, coastal erosion, commercial activities, and sea level rise all threaten the economic and environmental destruction of this rare and valuable region due to the known consequences of responding to earlier needs of the nation. The need to reverse these consequences is most compelling:
Ecological and Economic Impacts for the Nation and the World
America’s WETLAND, the seventh largest delta on earth, is of world ecological significance. The potential collapse of this intricate ecosystem where 90% of Gulf marine life spends all or part of its lifecycle will have catastrophic environmental consequences for wildlife habitat and marine species. It is also a working wetland. More than 25% of all oil and gas consumed in this nation crosses Louisiana’s shore by tanker, barge or pipeline. It is from this area that distribution of energy for the entire eastern U.S. begins.
As the protective wetlands and barrier islands of the Gulf Coast degrade, energy, shipping, commercial fisheries and maritime infrastructure along the coast becomes exposed to open Gulf conditions. Wells, pipelines, ports, roads and levees that are key to energy and commodity delivery become more vulnerable, and the potential for damaging oil spills increases. As these conditions worsen, the environmental damage in the event of a hurricane or storm is unthinkable and the nation’s economic and energy security is put at risk; the probability for interruption of oil and gas production and distribution to the nation is certain.
Protection for the Nation’s Ports, Cities and Inland Waterways
America’s WETLAND serves as protection from hurricanes and storm surges for more than two million people living in communities of the coastal zone, including the city of New Orleans. A strong ecosystem acts as a buffer for the largest port system in the world by tonnage, responsible for moving the nation’s goods to our people and to world markets.
The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) was built through these wetlands in the early 1900s by the federal government. This shallow-draft canal, an integral part of the inland transportation system of the United States, makes it possible to supply domestic and foreign markets with chemicals, agricultural products and other essential goods from America’s heartland. Wetland loss along Louisiana’s coast poses an immediate threat to the GIWW, as shorelines erode and land is lost contiguous to this vital water transportation route once sheltered by wetlands and now experiencing channel widening and open water conditions.
Dead Zone, Nursery Ground and Wildlife Habitat
America’s WETLAND accepts the drainage of 41% of the United States through the lower Mississippi River system along with high concentrations of nitrogen from agricultural runoff. This contributes to a growing hypoxia problem and results in the largest dead zone in the world off Louisiana’s shore. Cooperative action is called for all 31 states and two Canadian provinces in the future health of the Mississippi River system, which is vulnerable as its delta dies. If viewed as actual land loss, the value of its square acreage would be astounding but adding the value of fresh water, sediment and nutrients jettisoned off the deep outer continental shelf that if captured could restore lost wetlands is unfathomable.
America’s WETLAND is the nursery ground for much of the country’s seafood, with 95% of all marine life in the Gulf of Mexico spending all or part of its life cycle in these coastal wetlands. America’s WETLAND is the wintering habitat for more than 10 million waterfowl and migratory birds in the Mississippi Flyway and Central Flyway. As the wetlands disappear, habitat is lost, threatening national refuges and putting at risk numerous threatened and endangered species.
Why You Should Care
America’s WETLAND represents one of the nation’s most productive natural assets and we are rapidly losing one of the most significant estuaries in the world. The region is both a sanctuary and workhorse.
Thirty percent of the seafood caught in the contiguous US comes from America’s WETLAND and, beyond its world ecological significance, it is the heart of America’s Energy Coast, a place where we fuel the nation and provide for its domestic energy and economic security. Billions of dollars in infrastructure, the nation’s largest port system and 90 percent of the offshore energy produced in the U.S. is at risk and exposed.
Louisiana’s wetlands also act as a natural buffer and is the first line of defense against hurricanes and major storms. The rapidly eroding wetlands are integral to the safety and security of more than two-million people and a truly unique culture inextricably tied to the land it inhabits. Already the first climate refugees have been declared in Southeast Louisiana with the loss of, Isle de Jean Charles, a Native American community consumed by the rising tide. Low-lying Terrebonne Parish has moved to tax itself to build protective levees and devises to protect landowners, residents, business and vital public services.
AWF has a strong belief that the future of the region can survive through multiple lines of offense with solutions for resiliency and adaptation that employ “building with nature” and “living with water,” two universal concepts that respect the role of a healthy ecosystem and biodiversity as key to sustainability.