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Restoring the Mississippi, Part 1: Reducing Dead Zones in Louisiana's Gulf Coast

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The Gulf Coast of Louisiana provides the nation with more shrimp, oysters and fish than anywhere outside Alaska. It also serves as the conduit for Gulf port trade on the Mississippi River. Without the ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, foreign grain markets would be out of reach for many Ohio farmers. But in recent years, the Mississippi has also channeled excess nutrients from Midwestern farms straight into the Gulf, creating a dead zone the size of Massachusetts. Related loss of coastal wetlands is threatening to swamp Louisiana ports. Scientists say the best solution may be massive restoration of wetlands in Ohio and other Midwestern states. In this first of a two-part report, ideastream's Karen Schaefer acquaints us with the scope of the problem.

Monday, November 10, 2003 at 1:35 pm

New Orleans jazz, Cajun gumbo, and the glittering decadence of Mardi Gras - this is the legacy of Louisiana, a cultural icon known throughout the world. It's also home to two of the world's busiest ports at Baton Rouge and New Orleans. But it's the natural gifts of the Mississippi River that make it all possible. Draining nearly half of the Unites States through the Ohio and Missouri Rivers, the Big Muddy has been depositing a wealth of nutrients and silt in its delta for almost 200,000 years. The vast Louisiana bayou is one of the most productive estuaries in the world - a productivity shared with the rest of the country.

Windell Curole: If the Midwest is the breadbasket of the country, then Louisiana is its seafood platter.

But today that productivity is threatened by human interference with the natural system. Windell Curole is a seventh-generation Cajun who lives in Bayou Lafourche, about 30 miles south of New Orleans. He says it all starts with shrimp.

Windell Curole: My family's always been in the shrimping business. I was noticing we were pulling the fish on deck - and I noticed they were dying while we were separating the shrimp. By the end of the week, we caught nothing at all pulling two 60-foot trawls. And my father told me he'd never seen that before.

That was back in 1973. Today, a dead zone of more than 8,500 square miles is wreaking havoc on the productivity of Louisiana's billion-dollar seafood industry. The dead zone is caused by hypoxia, a condition of low oxygen that kills fixed populations like oysters and drives shrimp and fish away from traditional fishing grounds. Scientists say the source of hypoxia is too much fertilizer - mostly nitrogen and phosphorus - flowing into the Mississippi from Midwestern farms like those in Ohio. But that wouldn't be a problem if the river was still connected to its delta. On a tour of Bayou Lafourche with a bus-full of environmental journalists, Louisiana State University geologist Paul Kemp explains that the genesis of the problem was trying to control Mississippi flood waters.

Paul Kemp: Levees were built from almost the first day the Europeans set foot in Louisiana, so that means the modern river is well-separated from its delta. You've got to keep supplying it with sediment and water at one end because it's always sinking. Basically, these wetlands have to be replenished continuously - they stopped being replenished after we built the levees.

Along with a loss of productivity, Louisiana has been losing its coastal wetlands at the rate of a football field a day for the past hundred years. That threatens almost a third of the nation's oil and natural gas production in the Gulf, as well as pipelines that provide about 13% of the U.S. foreign oil supply. But Windell Curole says it doesn't end there. Curole heads the South Lafourche Levee District, the last line of defense against tropical storms that are eating away at Louisiana's Gulf Coast.

Windell Curole: As we lose that marsh, storm surges come closer and closer to us. When I was a kid, even if you had a tropical storm or a Category 1 hurricane, you had a day off of school, the trees would blow around a bit - but no big deal. Now tropical storms are putting water over roads and flooding homes and businesses. That didn't happen 30 and 40 years ago.

Here at the Port of New Orleans, residents like Deputy Director of Port Development Cathy Dunn are all too aware that the next big storm could drown their beloved Big Easy in 15 feet of water.

Cathy Dunn: What that marker is actually showing is the height to the bridge. Right now the clearance on the bridge is about 170 feet. If we're in our office, we know how the river's running just by looking at that gauge.

Louisiana is backing a $14 billion solution that would partially reconnect the Mississippi to its delta. The plan calls for federal assistance to create a series of river diversions that would once again pour life-giving nutrients and sediments into the marsh. But diversions alone won't rid the Gulf of dead zones now common to scores of major estuaries in the United States. For that, scientists say we need an ecological fix as vast as the watershed itself. And Ohio - which is part of the problem - is also part of the solution. Tomorrow we'll hear from a scientist at Ohio State University about why restoring millions of acres of wetlands in the Midwest could help save the Louisiana coast - and at the same time improve water quality for millions of Ohioans. In Louisiana, I'm Karen Schaefer, 90.3.