Wax Lake Delta: Accidental Eden in the Atchafalaya

The biggest success story (so far) in restoring the marshes of southern Louisiana is an accident.

by Hal Herring

Wax Lake, Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana -- A six foot gator slipped off the mudbank and lay still in the water, watching us. I stood on the bow of the big flatbottom while Ben Weber poled the boat from his homemade platform - this is a former working boat, converted by Ben to a shallow water redfish predator. We're after different game on this trip, in the freshwater of the Atchafalaya River, hunting big gar with brand new PSE Kingfisher bows that we are still figuring out how to use.

I want to shoot a big gar, but what I'm most fired up about today is that we're going to walk on the newest land in North America, a wild delta mud country that did not even exist twenty years ago, all of it teeming with fish and gators and flocks of waterfowl and cooking under the hot Louisiana sun like the very gumbo of life itself. While all the rest of southern Louisiana is besieged with massive erosion, land subsidence, marsh and land losses, the Wax Lake Delta is getting bigger and healthier every year.

The Wax Lake trip was part of about ten days that I spent in southern Louisiana this summer, fishing with the folks from the National Wildlife Federation (where Louisiana-native Ben Weber works on coastal restoration issues) and wandering with an old friend on the lower Pearl River. I came away convinced that Louisiana is still the Sportsmen's Paradise that its license plates have always claimed it was. And if we as a nation can act, it always will be.

Coastal Louisiana is considered to be the world's fastest disappearing landmass. Every year 75 square kilometers of wetlands disappear, barrier islands recede by 20 meters, and the salt waters of the Gulf of Mexico penetrate more deeply into the fresh and brackish water marshes, killing the grasses and making open water of what was once a vast expanse of low forests and land-stabilizing, wildlife and fish-nurturing marsh grasses. So far 1.2 million acres of America's duck and seafood factory have disappeared. For those shriveled souls who don't care about fish and wildlife, there are plenty of other reasons to be concerned. To cite just two of them: The Port of New Orleans, with its matrix of connecting railroads and highways, is an irreplaceable part of America's economy. The Port provides about 160,000 jobs in its mission as one of the world's most powerful import and export hubs. Goods (including over half of all our grain exports) from 14,500 miles of navigable inland waterways are barged through this port, which handles 6,000 vessels, 50,000 barges, and 62 million short tons of cargo every year. The massive energy infrastructure of Port Fourchon pumps $5 billion worth of royalties into the federal treasury and is the support base for 75 percent of all oil and gas development in the Gulf.

Fourchon is the host for the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), and handled an estimated $63.4 million worth of oil and gas in 2006. Every year, with every storm, the open Gulf of Mexico comes closer and closer to these critical blocks of our economy. Hurricanes Ike, Rita, Gustav, and Katrina all swept into a land that was once buffered by thousands of square miles of marsh land and cheniers (dry land ridges formed as part of the Delta and covered with hardwoods). Increasingly, the storms are buffered by nothing at all. Hurricane Katrina was just a warning shot across the bow. You won't find anyone familiar with the land loss situation in southern Louisiana who will tell you any different.

How exactly did we get here? Through our own great, well-meaning energies, with an enormous dose of sweat and clever engineering. In the wake of the huge 1927 floods on the Mississippi and its tributaries, we began building levees, to keep the river from taking our farms and towns. Eventually, we managed to levee almost 2,000 miles of the river, confining it, and preventing the river from fanning out over its floodplain, where, safe from the floods now, we could build more houses, farms, cities. We were not concerned, way back then, that the fanning out of the silt-laden river way downstream where it met the Gulf of Mexico and slowed had built most of the fish-and- wildlife-rich state of Louisiana. With the river confined between the levees, the land-building silt stays in the river channel (hydrologists compare the confined river to a "firehose" rather than a functioning river), and most of it is carried out into one of the deepest parts of the Gulf of Mexico.

With the river confined and unable to build new land, our own activities, filling and draining wetlands, and especially the cutting and dredging of canals by the energy industry (the economic lifeblood of southern Louisiana) has contributed to the loss of what land there was. Land loss is an exponential process. Canals split the marsh into smaller blocks that are susceptible to the erosion caused by boat traffic, wind, and storms, and they allow saltwater to penetrate far inland, killing off the freshwater and brackish-water plants. As those plants die, the dense matrix of roots that held the land in place dies with them, and erosion speeds up. Open water replaces marsh, and then eats away at what was once dry land, with hardwood forests, pastures, in one area, even orange groves, disappearing forever (take a read at Mike Tidwell's 2003 book, Bayou Farewell, to learn more about what is happening here, and about the human costs, as a wild and free-spirited old culture disappears with the land). It took about 7,000 years for the Mississippi River to build the Sportsman's Paradise of coastal Louisiana. In less than a century of levee building and engineering the river, we've managed to lose about a third of it.

So far, the effort to restore these wetlands and marshes has been shot-through with political chicanery, half-assedness and conflicting desires, many of them orbiting the old governmental standby of doing nothing at all. It has seemed that the American spirit that leveed the river in the first place, that dammed the Columbia, that created the enormous and complex public and private works that were once the measure of the success of our nation, had withered and died, replaced by the whining me-me-me and the squandering, if-it-feels-good-do-it culture of television, politics, and credit-card culture. The well-meaning and Herculean flood control efforts of the 20th Century protected life and economy at a cost that was then unknown. Now that the the cost is known, we seem to lack the Herculean fortitude of our forebears to create a new model to fix the damage they are causing. Some say they don't know how to start.

Luckily, the invincible power of water itself has taken matters into its own hands, and shown us the way.

In the high-water year of 1941, the Atchafalaya River (which is actually a channel of the Mississippi River; they separate about 180 river miles north of the Gulf, at what is called the Old River Control Structure) was threatening, once again, to overwhelm the town of Morgan City, Louisiana. In the heavy-handed way of the time, the US Army Corp of Engineers cut a new channel, the Wax Lake Outlet, also known as the Calumet Cut, from the main river channel to let 30% of the flow pour out to the Gulf of Mexico. The cut worked as planned, Morgan City was saved, and part of the Atchafalaya has poured through that cut ever since. This last year, with the record-breaking floods, the water and the silt really poured through there. Check out the video here.

Since 1942, a kind of inevitable miracle has occurred. As the Atchafalaya's silt laden waters run into the tides of the Gulf of Mexico, the water slows, the silt settles out, and land begins to appear, delta land, comprised of the rich topsoil of every state from Montana to Ohio, Minnesota to east Tennessee.

This is the kind of habitat that brings an estimated ten million ducks to winter in southern Louisiana. And it's all part of the 141,000 acre Atchafalaya Wildlife Management Area, a vast publically accessible swampland wilderness where hunters from near and far arrive in old and new houseboats, pirogues, and flatbottoms stacked with camping gear and food for the opening days of some of the world's finest waterfowl hunting. This is the kind of habitat that makes the show Swamp People so much fun to watch - wild, rich places, places ruled by the sometimes dangerous pace of nature's time, where gators lie gape-mouthed on the mud beaches, sawfish and monster sturgeon lurk, where, when that bobber disappears, or that rod tip bows down, you have no idea what is eating that bait down there, in the primordial darkness of the river. There is the feeling, there in that immensity of ancient mud and waterlilies, willow thickets, elephant ears, under that white almost tropical sky, that well, almost anything might be living, almost anything can happen. It's a heady, intoxicating, buggy place, as you can see below.

And it is a model for the kind of restoration that can be practiced on other parts of the lower Mississippi River Delta, to stop the losses of land and began to bring it back to this very kind of richness. The Atchafalaya River has shown us the way. Please take a look at the video below to see some more of this country, and hear Ben Weber, Land Tawney from the National Wildlife Federation, local guides, and experts like Field & Stream's own Bob Marshall explain what is wrong, how it can be fixed.

Ben Weber and I failed to put the arrows to any big gar. The wind was up, the water muddy with a serious chop. We did see a couple breach the surface and roll, but too fast for us. What we saw, though, was even better. The record 2011 floods had produced new land all over the lower delta. Ben had been here many times, but he had to be careful not to run us aground on the new ridges and bars. Giant snags, dead trees from who-knows where, lay buried in silt everywhere, with silt built up behind them in strange patterns and figures sculpted by the current and covered with new plants springing forth, a waist deep torrent of green. The newest land in North America, and a path for us to follow.