Students Learn About the Coast, Its Problems

It doesn’t take much of a climb from the Houma-Terrebonne Airport before one has a clear view of the state’s coastal predicament.

(From / by Xerxes Wilson) — Just above the first treeline with the towering cranes at LaShip and Gulf Island Fabrication shipyards well in sight, the barely distinguishable banks of Lake Boudreaux come into view. Soon the plane is over a stand of dead cypress sticking up like sparse hairs on a balding and saline marsh. It won’t be long before the marsh below will be swallowed by the lake where the distance between open water and Houma is always closing.

“I remember as a young pilot. All of this out there was solid. Now you see the new Lake Boudreaux forming,” said Charlie Hammonds, a longtime-area pilot as he guided his four-seater Cessna.

On Monday, Hammonds was ferrying a group of students from as far away as New York over the marshes of south Terrebonne Parish.

Hammonds as much as anyone has witnessed the transformation of land to water as the delta continues to subside, bringing the Gulf of Mexico ever inland.

“I’ve been flying here since I was a teen,” Hammonds said. “I’ve seen it change so much.”

It’s that perspective Murt Conover, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium’s senior marine educator, hopes the 10 or so students who participated in flights with Hammonds use in their week of research. The students are participating in LUMCON’s Field Marine Science Camp supported by the Coastal Waters Consortium. During the week, the students have research goals tied to LUMCON’s ongoing research on the 2010 BP oil spill.

“The flights are to introduce them to the coastal marsh,” Conover said. “It is easier to see the hydrology, how water moves through the system, how closely our communities are connected to water as well as the land-loss issues.”

For 7,000 years, the Mississippi River and winding distributaries built the local land. During the flooding season, these bayous would top their banks, spreading sediment in the water.

Most of the material fell close to the bayou, creating the highest ground. It’s along these natural waterways, where the few remaining trees still stand, their limbs and surroundings steadily balding. Soon, they too will be skeletons, Hammonds said.

This high ground is also the shoulders on which places such as Chauvin, Dulac and Dularge still barely cling to their communities. The land tapers from bayou to open water in a few hundred yards or less in some places.

“It is amazing to see how close the water is to everything,” said Hallie Rogers, a high-school junior from Berwick.

Driving down Terrebonne’s fingers can give a false sense of security as most of these communities are tucked in behind parish drainage levees that shield the terrestrial perspective from the water.

“All of this has changed. You can see once that little bit of marsh goes, Chauvin will have the full force of the Gulf right on it,” Hammonds said, pointing to marsh seemingly sprinkled into the blue on Bayou Little Caillou’s eastern side.

From the Houma Navigation Canal, the area’s primary conduit for saltwater intrusion, water can be seen quickly flowing through oilfield pipeline canals before meandering through cuts into the marsh.

“The saltwater has just been allowed to come further and further in,” Hammonds said. “It has changed everything.”

The area’s complicated relationship with the oil and gas industry is illustrated through of unnatural waterways cut through the marsh. Some pipeline paths cut across the wetlands while older navigation canals form unnatural mazes through the marsh to long-forgotten wellheads tapped and abandoned over the last century.

These canals have naturally widened through the years, providing a path for saltier water. Scientists note these unnatural formations have exacerbated the state’s land-loss problem.

“From the air you can see all the dead cypress. It shows the land loss happening right there,” said Tori Hebert, a senior at the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts.

From the air, there’s also hope for the future. From the marsh, towering machines pile mud into and eventually above the water, forming the first footprints of the 97-mile Morganza-to-the-Gulf levee system designed to wrap across southern Terrebonne with levees as high as 25 feet and several football fields wide.

Hammonds points to a cluster of healthy trees tucked behind a levee.

“If that levee wasn’t there, those trees would be dead. Chauvin would be in the water too,” Hammonds said, pointing out a square patch of marsh, segregated by a small spoil bank.

Hammonds said local restoration is urgently needed.

“We need to do something major fast. I’ve seen these little Band-Aid fixes come along. They spend millions on them and soon they are gone. We’ve got to do something different down here,” he said.

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