Archive for Wax Lake Delta


Hurricane Isaac Batters Louisiana Marshes, Uncovers Oil

September 13, 2012 | Posted by Elizabeth Skree in Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Hurricane Isaac, Media Resources, RESTORE Act, Science, Wax Lake Delta, Wildlife

This story was originally published by the National Wildlife Federation.

By Craig Guillot, National Wildlife Federation

When Hurricane Isaac struck Louisiana on the seven-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, its winds and tidal surge caused four deaths and at least $1.5 billion in insured damages. For many residents around the Mississippi River Delta, Isaac brought back memories of two recent disasters to hit the coast — Katrina and the 2010 Gulf oil disaster. Before the storm even hit land, residents in some coastal communities noticed a rise in the number of tar balls washing ashore. Officials later discovered moderate amounts of tar balls and weathered oil in coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Experts say scenes like this could be normal for decades to come and that Louisiana’s coast will require constant monitoring and a long-term plan for restoration. Despite advertising campaigns to the contrary, the region is still reeling from the Gulf oil disaster more than two years after the blow out of BP’s Macondo well.

Tar balls and oil reappears in the Mississippi River Delta

Even before Hurricane Isaac hit the coast, residents in communities from Grand Isle, La., to as far east as Gulf Shores, Ala., started to report an increase in tar balls washing ashore as the Gulf began to churn. Tar balls, sheen and various remnants of weathered oil were found following the storm in many of those areas including the pristine shorelines of Ship Island in Mississippi.

A National Wildlife Federation (NWF) team surveyed the waters and beaches near Port Fourchon, Elmer’s Island and Grand Isle on September 6 to survey the waters and beaches. While they did not find any evidence of significant oiling, they did find moderate amounts of tar balls on the beaches in Grand Isle. Tar balls have been a reality on Louisiana's coast for decades but Grand Isle residents say what was left on the beaches after Isaac was "a lot more than normal."

NWF Staff Scientist Alisha Renfro, Ph.D., said a number of tropical storms and weather events have washed up tar balls since the start of the 2010 disaster.

“They continue to wash up because there’s a lot of weathered oil still out there, either just offshore or just beneath the surface of the sand,” Renfro said.

NWF also made a trip out to Myrtle Grove, La., on September 7 to survey the damage that Isaac inflicted on the marsh. The eye of the storm first made landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River and passed over some of the state's most fragile marshes before making a second landfall near Port Fourchon.

David Muth, Louisiana state director for NWF, said the team found evidence of localized marsh destruction. On his survey, Muth noticed hundreds of large chunks of marsh that had broken away and been deposited in open water.

“Marsh break-up occurred in areas that have a history of rapid marsh loss in Louisiana, near Myrtle Grove. Healthier marshes to the south showed no signs of break-up. The findings illustrate the importance of quickly building the authorized Myrtle Grove Sediment Diversion, which will build new marsh in this vital area.”

The NWF team also found three oiled pelicans near Myrtle Grove. A number of media outlets reported oiled birds and wildlife following the storm. While there is no connection between these findings and the Macondo disaster, Muth said, “This is further evidence that we have not yet completely learned the lessons of the Gulf oil disaster.

"Oil could be here for decades."

Even 23 years after the Exxon-Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, oil can still be found beneath the surface. Biologists say that "sub-lethal" effects to fisheries could linger in the Gulf of Mexico for years to come.

"It will probably be an issue for a long time, especially as many people conjecture that there are still tar mats laying on the bottom that you can't easily clean up," Muth said.

In April 2012, two years after oil started pouring into the Gulf, an NWF team found heavy oil still sitting just beneath the surface on small islands in Barataria Bay and Bay Jimmy. On one island, the oil was so abundant that it oozed to the surface under each foot step. Renfro said while oil may remain below the surface during the winter, it can emerge in the spring and summer when the heat softens it up and liquefies it. Many biologists believe that reappearing oil could be an annual occurrence in the summer months.

If there’s any good news, it’s that when oil comes to the surface, sunlight and weathering can help further break it down.

“Photo-oxidation from the sunlight helps break down that material even more. It also helps reveal it so that cleanup crews can get it. Hopefully we’ll have less and less over time,” Renfro said.

Last week, Louisiana State University ran lab tests for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and determined that the oil found on Grand Isle and Elmer's Island matched the footprint for the oil spilled from BP's Macondo well. BP later confirmed that the oil was from the well and that they would dispatch workers to clean it up.

Ed Overton, Ph.D., professor emeritus with the Department of Environmental Sciences at Louisiana State University, said that while oil is still out there, it is hard to tell exactly how much. Overton did say that storms can serve as “Mother Nature’s hurricane” in helping break down the oil. He believes that oil will degrade faster on the Gulf Coast than it did in Prince William Sound because of the geography of the shore.

“Our shoreline erodes and moves around more quickly. The problem with sandy beaches is that once it gets buried, you just don’t know where it is. We’ll likely see it for years but not at the level we saw in 2010,” Overton said.

Mississippi River Delta wetlands remain in a precarious state

Biologists and coastal restoration advocates say while the oil is an issue, it is only one part of a number of problems eating away at Louisiana’s wetlands. Oil has attacked the roots of plants and contributed to the death of marsh grass and mangroves but the encasement of the Mississippi River and saltwater intrusion has had a destructive impact for decades. In some areas of the marsh, the oil appears to have been the final straw.

Renfro also surveyed the Mississippi River by air on September 7 and saw heavily damaged patches of marsh between Belle Chase and Point a la Hache. She and Muth said there were clear differences in how untouched marshes fared compared to those that were heavily oiled during the summer of 2010.

“Pelican Island doesn’t look good at all. The mangrove has just been all brown and dead. It saw heavy oiling in 2010,” Muth said.

While marshes have always endured the winds and surges of hurricanes, Muth said he’s seen clear differences in how a healthy marsh can recover quickly. Further south in “healthier” areas of marsh, Muth said some parts looked almost invigorated by the storm where natural processes can deposit new layers of clay and sediment.

Renfro said the Wax Lake Delta is a clear example of how a thriving marsh can recover from a storm. After Hurricane Rita struck the area in 2005, damage to these wetlands was observed in the aftermath of the storm, but there was not a significant lasting impact. The Wax Lake Delta has been a rare success story in coastal restoration because it is fed sediment by the Atchafalaya River.

“The steady supply of mineral-rich sediments from the river help make these wetlands more resilient and allow them to recover quickly when damaged,” Renfro said.

NWF’s Greater New Orleans Program Manager Amanda Moore said it all underlines why the Gulf Coast needs a long-term comprehensive strategy for coastal restoration. NWF was instrumental in helping create and push for the passage of the RESTORE Act, a bill that ensures 80 percent of the fines and penalties from the Gulf oil disaster will be dedicated to Gulf Coast restoration.

Moore said its passage has been a monumental victory for the coast and that funding in the near future should help move along big coastal restoration projects. Ongoing monitoring of the impacts of the Gulf oil disaster will be needed to ensure a sound recovery.

“We knew that when the disaster happened, we'd be dealing with this for years to come. We need to keep vigilant and watching it because we could be dealing with this for a long time,” Moore said.

No Comments

Wonders in the Wax Lake Delta

October 19, 2011 | Posted by Elizabeth Skree in Birds, People, Wax Lake Delta, Wildlife

This piece was originally posted on the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana's Coast Currents blog.

By Scott Madere, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana

The first clue that things were going to be different today was the blue rectangle under the "No Parking" sign at the boat launch. "Beware of Bears," it read. I’ve lived my whole life in Louisiana and I’ve never seen one of those. But it was only one of many firsts for me as we headed into the Wax Lake Delta that morning, to discover one of Louisiana’s most pristine paradises… and possibly the key to saving Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.

With me on the excursion were about 30 companions from the National Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. While many of us were locals, there were plenty of explorers from Washington, D.C., some of whom had never been in a Louisiana marsh before.

It was only fitting, then, that their first experience should begin with a short trip through the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the shipping highway that unites the entire Louisiana coast, and the path to our destination, the Wax Lake Outlet. Our party traveled in five boats on calm waters, past barges and fishermen, the usual signs of activity on the Intracoastal. I found myself thinking ahead to what I would find in the Delta, almost missing something truly extraordinary happening on the bank to my right.

"Look… it's an eagle," said one of my boat companions.

Sure enough, a sight that had eluded me for many years appeared in the distance. A juvenile bald eagle, in flight, came in for a landing on the bank. As I captured his slow descent with my camera, a mature bald eagle emerged from the irises nearby. I was stunned. I had never seen a bald eagle in the wild before, and within a span of seconds, I had seen two. It was an experience that reminded me that there never really is anything routine about the Louisiana marsh. It's a unique wonder each time you visit.

Before long we reached the intersection with the Wax Lake Outlet, turning south toward Atchafalaya Bay. The outlet was created in 1942 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to divert the waters of the Atchafalaya River from possibly flooding Morgan City. The outlet itself is a lot like the Intracoastal Waterway, deep, straight and wide. But the interesting part of what’s happening in the Wax Lake Outlet is where it ends, in Atchafalaya Bay. That's what everyone on this trip was there to see. That's where we encountered the Wax Lake Delta, a rapidly building land mass… an unforeseen benefit of diverting the Atchafalaya River.

The delta forming at the bottom of the outlet wasn’t noticed until the early 1970's. As it happened, decades of sand and fine silt moving from the Atchafalaya River into the Wax Lake Outlet began to accumulate at the outlet's mouth. Before long, channelization occurred and lobes of land began to arise where no land had been before. Louisiana is not losing land in this section of the coast. It is building land, and building it quickly (geologically speaking, of course).

For this reason, the Wax Lake Delta serves as one of the best hopes that coastal researchers have for making the case that river diversions work, and that these diversions can be made elsewhere along the coast, rebuilding and restoring coastal wetlands.

When our squadron of boats reached one of the Delta's landmasses, the proof was right there for all to see. New land, rising from the Gulf of Mexico. Covered in lotus plants gone to seed, the soil was firm and claylike underfoot. It was not like swamp mud. This felt like land that was built to last.

The enthusiasm for what we were seeing spread across our entire party. To see the Wax Lake Delta firsthand is to see what Louisiana once was and what it could once again be. Everywhere I looked, I saw shorebirds, grasses, flowering plants, lilies, fish jumping and swirling. This was a real and thriving ecosystem, nourished by a steady flow of fresh water and silt from a river determined to reconnect with the marsh.

As we boated south into the Atchafalaya bay, honestly, I began to wonder why we were heading into open water. That's when the boats slowed and one of my companions hopped out into the bay. He landed in water that was a little less than knee-deep. That’s when it hit me. We were not looking at today's land, but rather, tomorrow's. In a few years, this open area of the bay will be solid ground, as more sediment is deposited and plants begin to root. Already, aquatic plants can be seen just below the surface, forming anchors to trap the fine silt suspended in the gentle waves from the Wax Lake Outlet.

Many in our party spent half an hour wading through the shallow water, all smiles as brown pelicans circled overhead. It struck me that we were the very first people to stand on this new part of Louisiana.

A trip into Wax Lake Delta is invigorating to those who are committed to the future of our coast. It represents a victory in the effort to bring vitality and hope back to our wetlands. If 25 square miles worth of new land can be created accidentally by the Wax Lake Outlet, imagine what could be done purposefully, with proper planning, good science and willpower to make it happen.

It was very hard to leave the Wax Lake Delta behind. I've rarely felt happier out in the Louisiana marsh. The only thing that would have made the day better would have been to see one of those bears the little blue sign warned me about. But there’s always next time. And at the rate that I’m seeing wonders in this delta, I would judge that possibility likely.

No Comments