Earth Law for the Louisiana Wetlands

By Jaishal Dhimar

U.S Army Corp of Engineers

When most folks think about Louisiana they imagine a debauched urban environment fueled by alcohol, sex, and most importantly, Mardi Gras beads. Most people do not think of the beautiful wetlands outside one of our biggest tourist destinations, New Orleans. While New Orleans is a great time (trust me, going to school an hour away was a blessing and a curse), I miss south Louisiana for the landscape. Not much is better than cruising along back home (or the early morning) with just the sounds of the bayou croaking back at you.

In the evening the sky paints the landscape as far as you can see with an orange tint, mixed with the iridescent views of our oaks and magnolias. Green water lightly ripples from crappie and the eyes of the gators peeking out. You question what’s better than cruising along the water pondering how much cheaper it is to live down south; what it would be like to have a boat of your own.

Until a mosquito buzzes in your ear.

What Are the Louisiana Wetlands?

The Louisiana Wetlands is where the “mouth” of the Mississippi River empties its various sediments and slows as it enters the Gulf Coast. This is one of the most interesting ecosystems in North America. In the mixture of brackish water you can find otherworldly fauna and animals found nowhere else. Many animals use this special ecosystem as their breeding grounds or during migratory periods.

Almost 90% of bird species in Louisiana claim this wetland as home. This area is key as a habitat for many species, protects the nation from flooding, and is the economic backbone that runs through many states.

The economic significance of the area is very important because 97% of the Gulf’s commercial fisheries spend at least a portion of their lives here, giving the area a major role in fishing’s $2.4 billion-dollar economic impact on the state. Louisiana provides 20% of the current fish and shellfish harvest for the nation. The natural habitat for these animals is disappearing and this will have lasting effects on major industries.

Why Does It Matter?

The Louisiana coastal wetlands are one of the most serious environmental issues facing our nation today; 80% of our nation’s land loss is happening in Louisiana. Along with rapid land loss, we are losing much of our nation’s seafood production. Louisiana produces almost 20% of the current fish and shellfish harvest but this is rapidly decreasing as species become scarcer.

Originally the Mississippi River would flood the wetlands, creating land loss but also adding sediment, naturally keeping an even balance of land in other locations. Now the land loss outpaces the natural buildup of land. Multiple reasons can be pinned to the increase in land loss including fluid extraction by oil companies, dredging canals, and upriver dams preventing sediment build up.

Study shows that during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 coast wetlands prevented more than $625,000,000 dollars of property damage. That is $625 million dollars that would have been lost if the wetlands did not exist.

What Remains?

Our nation loses roughly 100 yards of Louisiana’s wetland every 34 minutes. The American alligator bounced back from extinction once, but could it do so again if its habitat disappears?

We could also lose unique species outside of the wetlands such as rare sea turtles, West Indian Manatees, and other animals of all types. The wetlands provide a unique ecosystem and resting ground for many migratory species.

You may say, “We can lose the animals,” but the wetland loss has already had devastating impacts on local development, agriculture and property damage amounting to about $12,000,000 billion dollars. The economic damage will only rise as the ecosystem disappears. Another storm like Hurricane Katrina, unmitigated by the wetlands, is estimated as likely to cause damage exceeding $150,000,000 billion dollars.

What’s Being Done Now?

Louisiana governments have chosen to undertake a multi-faceted $92 billion dollar “Master Plan” over 50 years. It involves some of the world’s top engineers, scientists, and environmental researchers. The undertaking is a flagship model for other regions attempting to undergo rebuilding their own wetland areas.

However, the legislation has its critics including the state’s Nature Resources Chairman Norby Chabert. Chabert cites that key members of the legislative branch keeping a close eye on the plan will be replaced with more ignorant members and that throwing money at the problem is not going to necessarily solve the major national issue.

“‘I asked Bren [Haase, the coastal authority’s master plan supervisor] if he had $150 billion, could we solve all our problems. The answer is no,’ Chabert said. ‘This is a crisis of national importance, and the national government is giving us very little help. This government has very little oversight over that.’”

Threats to the Louisiana Wetlands

We can point out several issues as being integral to the loss of land, but as with many things, humanity has a huge impact on the bayou.

Previously, much of the land was privately owned. As it was generally overrun with wildlife and fauna most real estate brokers considered the land worthless as it was uninhabitable. Except for one type of person, the oil executive. Eager, to buy cheap land from many uneducated residents looking to make a quick buck, oil companies began to dredge as they continued to gather fuel from the Gulf Coast.

Others point toward climate change as one of the major problems, infecting the water with more salt than local species are used to. Many plants who held the land together could not take the change of water and slowly died off.

Even now the major structural plant known as Roseau Cane is being attacked by pests without the Louisiana government acting.

Hundreds of oil wells litter the landscape. What will happen when the land cannot sustain itself and the water takes over?

What Would Earth Law Look Like for the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands?

Incorporating Earth Law into the ecosystem and landscape will have some powerful effects on our nation’s biggest land loss, preventing the extinction of multiple species while keeping Louisiana’s economy intact.

First, we can designate the wetlands as a protected zone to prevent future oil wells, dredging, pipelines, and other major changes that can affect the landscape. Humanity has majorly encroached over one thousand acres of land, disrupting natural habitats. Increased regulation is needed.

Second, we can implement a natural renewable resource policy to prevent over fishing and hunting of key species to prevent pest (insects and wild boar to name a few) populations from exploding. We can explore reintroducing predator populations such as local bird species that have continued to migrate further north.

Third, legal rights for the natural organisms will enable them to sue oil companies to gain compensation to recover land or add to the budget of Louisiana’s “Master Plan.” Many oil pipelines built under land are being exposed and may end up being punctured, furthering damage.

Earth Law will provide a solution that can protect what wetlands we have currently while allowing for future restoration. It will prevent economic collapse by balancing humans, other species, and Earth as equals.

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