By Richie Blink, Plaquemines Parish Community Outreach Coordinator, National Wildlife Federation
May is American Wetlands Month, and Louisiana's coastal wetlands are some of the most productive ecosystems in North America. Not only do they provide habitat for numerous fish, wildlife and birds, but they also help improve water quality, provide recreational opportunities and protection for people and infrastructure from damaging storm surges.
Wildlife habitat and nurseries
Wetlands serve as a nursery environment for juvenile fish. The countless ponds, bays and bayous found in the Mississippi River Delta provide essential habitat for most commercial and game fish found in the Gulf of Mexico. Menhaden, shrimp, oysters and blue crab area all important commercial species that depend on healthy coastal wetlands to thrive. Additionally, fur-bearers like muskrat, beaver and mink, as well as reptiles including alligators call coastal wetlands and estuaries home.
Storm surge protection
Wetlands have an incredible value for people, too. One acre of wetlands has the capacity to hold up to 1 million gallons of water during a flood! On average, damaging storm surges are reduced by one foot for every 2.7 miles of wetlands, reducing wave energy and protecting levees and other critical infrastructure from these destructive forces of nature. The value of community protection for a one-mile strip of wetlands is valued at $5.7 million.
Wetlands also help improve water quality by filtering and retaining residential, agricultural and urban wastes. Reconnection of the Mississippi River to surrounding wetlands would help filter out nutrients that are contribute to a harmful low oxygen area in the Gulf of Mexico dubbed the “dead zone.” The shallow waters of coastal wetlands are good habitat for submerged aquatic vegetation, which can utilize the extra nutrients and potentially reduce the Gulf of Mexico dead zone as well as increasing water clarity.
Restoring Louisiana’s coastal wetlands
Louisiana holds 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the continental U.S. and is currently experiencing around 80 percent of all coastal wetland loss in the U.S. Work is currently underway to restore and rebuild wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta through projects in the state’s Coastal Master Plan, including sediment diversions and marsh creation. The reintroduction of Mississippi River water and sediment to its delta plain allows new wetlands to build and flourish, providing habitat for wildlife, clean water, places to recreate, and protection for storm surge.
Louisiana’s wetlands are a national treasure worth protecting. Learn more about why wetlands are important: https://www.epa.gov/wetlands/may-american-wetlands-month-learn-explore-take-action.
As the Plaquemines Community Outreach Coordinator for the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition, Richie Blink works closely with local stakeholders to ensure widespread support of sustainable restoration of the Mississippi River Delta. Prior to joining the coalition Richie served as the Coastal Zone Program Manager with Plaquemines Parish Government to achieve a zero net loss of wetlands. He organized grassroots wetland restoration efforts that resulted in the planting of more than 15,000 cypress trees to reverse land loss and reduce storm surge near his hometown south of New Orleans. He serves as a board member of the Woodlands Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust organization focused on preservation of Louisiana’s coastal forest ecosystems. Richie served for three years on the Plaquemines Coastal Zone Advisory Committee which selects coastal restoration projects for implementation. In his free time, he guides motorboat tours into Louisiana’s coastal wetlands for Lost Lands Environmental Tours L3C. Always exploring, Richie holds a private pilot license and is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain.
By Matt Phillips, Outreach Coordinator, Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition
On Friday, April 22nd, 2016, Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition staff participated in an Earth Day tree planting event. Outreach team staff joined their partners at the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and several volunteers to plant 250 cypress trees graciously donated by the St. Bernard Wetlands Foundation. Our staff and volunteers were thrilled to spend a day working in the wetlands, the sunshine and gentle breeze being a pleasant change from the normal office environment.
The nutrient-rich alluvial soils on the east bank of the Mississippi River create perfect conditions for growing cypress, and scientists at LPBF boast of a 77% survival rate for their volunteer-planted cypress trees. Cypress trees provide habitat for insects and animals, and as their tangled root masses grow, the plants establish themselves in the soil, limiting erosion while filtering water in the swamp. These trees are essential for restoring degraded wetland ecosystems.
Planting cypress in a degraded swamp requires some precautions to ensure the trees survive. Volunteers must select an appropriate substrate—not too wet, but not too far from water either—so the trees can thrive. Small wetland creatures threaten the young trees as well, and in Louisiana, nutria pose a consistent threat. The young trees contain a lot of nutrients, and the large rodents find them particularly yummy. To make sure the trees’ tender roots are protected, we installed nutria guards around their trunks.
Our team planted 250 trees, and though sweaty, sunburnt and exhausted, we could not have planned a better way to spend Earth Day.
If you would like to get involved in projects like this and other volunteer opportunities, please visit our Volunteer page!
Matt Phillips is the Coordinator for the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition’s Outreach Team. He works with organizers around Louisiana on improving the coalition’s community engagement. A native of New York City, Matt graduated from Oberlin College with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and moved to Louisiana shortly after to work on and learn about the state’s coastal land loss. He lives in New Orleans.
In the past two years, nearly 200 million tons of sediment have flowed past our vanishing wetlands and off the continental shelf.
This sediment is the key to rebuilding our coast – providing wildlife and fisheries habitat and protecting our communities for generations to come.
View the sediment counter to learn more!
By Reverend Doctor Cory Sparks, Director of the Institute of Nonprofit Excellence, Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations
When John Taylor was a boy growing up in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, cypress trees were so thick in nearby Bayou Bienvenue that he didn’t need a paddle for his pirogue. He could pull himself along by grabbing the cypress knees.
Decades later, saltwater intrusion from the now closed Mississippi River Gulf Outlet has turned the same stretch of bayou into a “ghost swamp” of dead trees, open water and marsh.
Taylor recently spoke to a field trip group from the Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church in New Orleans. Church members, including the youth group, gathered at the Bayou Bienvenue viewing platform in the Lower 9th Ward. They learned about the saltwater intrusion damaged the bayou, and the way this loss contributed to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Lower 9. Rayne Memorial organized the field trip to help their members learn more about the issue.
Helen Rose Patterson, faith outreach coordinator for the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition, then connected the story of Bayou Bienvenue to the larger issue of coastal land loss in Louisiana. Louisiana has lost an area of land the size of Delaware since World War II. And while it’s hard to comprehend that 2,000 square miles of land have disappeared, it’s easy to see the change in the now-degraded bayou. Patterson and Taylor hope that soon visitors will not only learn about the effects of wetlands loss, they’ll also view ways to restore the coast – all without having to travel outside the city.
The Rayne Memorial field trip also celebrated Earth Day Sunday, a national celebration of creation care that features special worship services and environmental talks. In Louisiana, Earth Day Sunday is coordinated by the Louisiana Interchurch Conference (LIC). The LIC is made up of 17 different Christian denominations. Members include the Roman Catholic dioceses of the state as well as historically African American denominations, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and United Methodists, among others.
The LIC has worked for decades to raise awareness of the threat to coastal wetlands. In 1988, the LIC hosted the first statewide hearings on wetlands restoration. A driving force of that effort, Rob Gorman, became founding board chair of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a member organization of the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition.
This year, the LIC partnered with the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition to publish a wetlands bulletin insert for Earth Day Sunday. The flier reminded worshipers that God made the heavens, the earth and the seas – and our beautiful wetlands. It called on Christians to care for this part of creation by supporting the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition and its goal to utilize the natural power of the river to support our wetlands and wildlife.
If your church, synagogue, mosque or temple would like to schedule a field trip to the Bayou Bienvenue viewing platform, please contact Helen Rose Patterson via email at PattersonH@nwf.org.
If you would like to stay up-to-date on coastal issues and receive information relevant to your area, sign up for the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition email list here!
Rev. Dr. Cory Sparks is Director of the Institute of Nonprofit Excellence of the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations. In this role he strengthens nonprofits to strengthen the state. He is an ordained United Methodist minister of the Louisiana Conference who has served churches in New Orleans and suburban Lafayette, Louisiana. Rev. Dr. Sparks is the Chair of the Commission on Stewardship of the Environment of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference. He also is a board member of the ecumenical group Christian Renewal New Orleans and President Elect of the New Orleans Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Rev. Dr. Sparks holds an A.B. from Columbia University, an M.Div. from Southern Methodist University, and a Doctorate in American History from Louisiana State University. During seminary he was a Ministry Fellow of the Fund for Theological Education (now the Fund for Theological Exploration).