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Saving Louisiana? the Battle for Coastal Wetlands

Bill Streever

(University Press of Mississipppi)

This Swamp is a Quagmire

The Mississippi Delta is not a natural landscape, and it hasn’t been for quite awhile. A river deposits sediments in its delta. The more sediment it deposits, the slower it moves, and eventually, seeking a speedier route to the ocean, it will change course, come what may. By the 1950’s, the Mississippi had slowed enough that its capture by the Atchafalaya River about 1980 was inevitable. Nothing unnatural here, though New Orleans and Baton Rouge would become high and dry, and otherwise there would have been no end to the chaos. Massive engineering structures were added above Baton Rouge to ensure that the Mississippi stayed where it belonged.


Since then, sediments have continued down the present delta, which has grown so far that the sediments are now falling beyond the Continental Shelf into deep water. There, they are useless in sustaining the coastal marshes which, deprived of the rejuvenating sediments, are dying at a remarkable rate.


Another prospective environmental disaster of interest only to Green Freaks? Hardly. When a Louisiana coastal marsh dies, it isn’t just grass and wildflowers that go. The marsh continues to consolidate under its own weight. It subsides and is reclaimed by the Gulf of Mexico. This has happened to an area about the size of Rhode Island and is obvious even to casual observers. Highway engineers watch roads subside. Petroleum engineers fret about wells and pipelines moving out to sea. Commercial fishermen suffer. Even city-slicker sportsmen notice. Gumbo slurping rednecks don’t have to be told.


The death of the Mississippi Coastal Wetlands is a hot topic in Louisiana and well it should be. Streever offers a clear synthesis of the problem, which is remarkable since he does so by recording his extensive travels through the Coastal Wetlands and beyond. He is involved. He gets wet. He gets cold and muddy. But his interviews with scientists, scholars, bureaucrats, lawyers and just plain folks who are involved in the death and rehabilitation of the marshes are what comprise the substance of his book.


We learn about all the unpaid-for benefits we get from the marshes—all those things they give gratis, without sending a monthly bill. We learn about some of the controversies. Maybe it isn’t the sediments going down into the abysmal deep that are causing the problem but all those damn canals we’ve dug every which-way. We learn about a half-dozen rehabilitation techniques, and we learn that if all of them are successful we’ll recover 22 percent of what we expect to lose by 2050. That’s the good news. The bad is that 78 percent will be lost, and probably more, since rehab techniques are highly experimental.


Streever’s subtext explores the nature of science, its purpose and function, particularly as science acts in the context of a mounting social disaster. Scientists have a singular function, to write papers that are printed in Science and Nature. That is about it. But in this context, the scientists live and work in the environment they study, and their laboratory is sinking beneath their feet. They are immersed in the problem by definition.


While the topic is appropriate, it frankly, gets a little old. It would help if Streever drew clearer distinctions, which science generally does, between science as pure theory and science engaged in real world problems, what is done by technology, engineering and applied science. There are scientists interested in mosquitoes just because mosquitoes are interesting, and those interested in mosquitoes because understanding them gives us a leg-up on malaria, typhus and other horrid things mosquitoes are implicated in. There is nothing new about this. It’s beaten into every science student from freshman to post-doc.


The reader, anticipating some degree of generalization and transfer of lessons learned to other wetlands, will look forward to the last chapter, Lessons from Louisiana. No such thing happens. Streever ponders the Mississippi without helping us to understand how this knowledge relates to the North Carolina marshes or the Mekong Delta.


A single map guides the reader through the maze of places Streever describes, and a number of very poor black and white photos help the reader visualize processes discussed in the text. Some line drawings to help explain the complex rehabilitation techniques described in the text would be a useful addition.


The softbound edition is pricey but not unreasonable. The cloth edition is reasonably priced only if the cloth comes from the Shroud of Turin and the endpapers from the Dead Sea Scrolls.


Streever is not a granola-crunching environmentalist. He dismisses the obvious, that of letting, even helping, the Atchafalaya catch the Mississippi, as utter foolishness. Still, a river’s delta is the embodiment of what one of science’s leading theoreticians, Stephen Gould, has called punctuated equilibrium—the idea that a complex system remains the same in general appearance even as it changes in detail. Seen this way, the Atchafalyaya will capture the Mississippi sooner or later, either through natural processes, or as one of Streever’s interviewers points out, with the help of a terrorists.


Streever’s objective as a writer is to examine complex, technical environmental issues in language that can be understood by any reasonably literate non-specialist. In Saving Louisiana?, Streever has done this, and done it well. Still the book isn’t a fun read. It is discomforting if only because there is no convenient solution. Streever has produced a solid summary of a problem that amounts to a morass, a quagmire. Unpleasant or not, the book is recommended for anyone with even an ephemeral interest in the complex environmental problems that confront modern society.

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