Atchafalaya Basin Forested Wetlands Under Siege Part 1

Spoil pile blocking flow of water into swamp

The Atchafalaya Basin in southwest Louisiana guides the Atchafalaya River, a 135-mile long natural distributary of the Mississippi River, that empties into the Gulf of Mexico through the only growing river delta in Louisiana.

The most ecologically important parts of the Atchafalaya Basin are 885,000 acres of forested wetlands and 517,000 acres of marshland, making this the largest river swamp in North America. The Atchafalaya Basin is a refuge for many endangered species and about 100 species of fish, crawfish, shrimp and crabs that feed birds, reptiles and mammals and support sport and commercial fishing. Other animals in the basin include white tail deer, bobcat, coyote, alligator, beaver, nutria, mink, otter, musk rat, armadillo, fox and opossum. The Atchafalaya is considered the most productive swamp in the world, three to five times more productive than the Everglades and the Okefenokee Swamp.

Threats to the Atchafalaya Basin

A principal part of Sierra Club’s mission is to enjoy and protect natural and scenic areas. We see the following as the most important current threats to Atchafalaya Basin wetland forests:

1) Dredging for oil field canals and pipelines and the resultant spoil piles have changed the hydrology, accelerated sedimentation and has created large areas of dead (not moving) water that do not support fish.

2) Natural and human caused sedimentation is turning cypress-tupelo swamps into dry bottomland hardwood forests.

3) Logging of remaining cypress-tupelo swamps and bottomland hardwood forests drives out wildlife and removes natural productivity.

4) Oilfield pollution poisons natural waters. The pollution consists of leakage of saline produced waters, oils and production platform wastes including toxic chemicals and heavy metals including mercury.

5) The Basin is mostly privately owned, which restricts public access and decreases support for conservation. Private land claimants have repeatedly tried to block off areas in the basin that are state owned and legally accessible public water bottoms in order to convert them to private hunting reserves and other uses.

Improving water quality and access In the Atchafalaya Basin

Numerous ill advised attempts have been made to alter the flow in the basin to “improve water quality.” A significant actor in this story has been the Atchafalaya Basin Program in the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. The Atchafalaya Basin Program every year puts out an annual plan describing projects that the program anticipates completing as funding comes available.

Again this year a project is proposed that will not help a major portion of the basin to stay wet and wild but will in fact accelerate infill of sediments which change forested wetlands to dry land forests. The danger is that conversion to dry land makes the forest accessible for logging and development. The proposed project is the East Grand Lake Project (201006). The project is justified as a “hydrologic restoration of the area by modifying a network of channelized water inputs.”

The project has support from The Nature Conservancy and would be a done deal except for strong opposition from Atchafalaya Basin Keeper, Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association West and Sierra Club Acadian Group. The crawfishermen are out on the water in the Grand Lake area almost every day harvesting crawfish and they know the water better than anyone because their livelihood depends on it. Their close examination of the project shows that it will result in infill of sediments, not improvement of water flows. The project if completed would be one more large conversion (about 72,000 acres) of forested wetlands to dryland forest in the Atchafalaya Basin.

The correct solution to facilitating natural north to south water flows in the Basin lies in removal of obstacles to natural water flows, especially spoil piles (dirt banks) from oil industry excavation of canals and pipelines across the swamp. Yet we see not one project in the list of those proposed by the Atchafalaya Basin Program that will remove these obstacles.

Sierra Club Acadian Group will be in strong support of our allies Atchafalaya Basin Keeper and Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association in public and legislative hearings to demand action to stop the East Grand Lake Project and to start taking out the spoil piles that obstruct natural water flows in the Atchafalaya Basin. In the long run this will benefit public access, tourism, recreational and commercial fishing, and enhancement of wildlife.

We will follow up with parts 2, 3 and 4 postings addressing other threats to the wet and wild Atchafalaya Basin.

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