FEATURE-Oil spill could hasten loss of Louisiana’s marshes

* Battered shoreline leaves wetlands vulnerable to oil

* Erosion of barrier islands has been decades in making

* Governor seeks permit for ‘sand boom’ dredging project

By Steve Gorman

PORT FOURCHON, La., May 14 (BestGrowthStock) – As blobs of tar wash
up on Louisiana’s outer shoreline three weeks into a huge oil
spill, the focus is on protecting the fragile, disappearing
marshes at the heart of much of the state’s economy and
culture.

“The vegetation in the coastal area is like the glue that
holds the sand and the mud together,” said Garret Graves, who
chairs the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration
Authority. “So you lose that vegetation, and you have mud.”

The steady erosion of Louisiana’s fragmented shoreline and
marshlands over the years, hastened by a recent string of
powerful hurricanes, will be accelerated further if the oil
spill in the Gulf of Mexico spreads into the state’s vulnerable
estuaries, experts say.

Oil can be removed relatively easily from the surface of
sand but it is toxic to plant life.

Racing against time, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal this
week ordered an expansion of work by National Guard troops to
close shoreline breaches in some 40 areas that have left
marshlands exposed to immediate oil infiltration.

He also is seeking emergency federal approval for a permit
to create large “sand booms” — man-made barrier islands —
from sand that would be dredged from the Gulf floor in three
zones off southeastern Louisiana. He said such an operation
could start to produce new land 10 days after dredging starts.

At stake is the ecological foundation of an economy and a
way of life.

The vast but dwindling marshes are the spawning grounds and
nurseries for shrimp, oysters, crabs and fish that make
Louisiana the leading producer of commercial seafood in the
continental United States and a top destination for
recreational anglers. The state dubs itself the “Sportsman’s
Paradise”.

“If the oil comes in here … this will be a Sportsman’s
hell hole,” said Rodney Dufrene, 23, a shrimp boat owner from a
town called Cut Off in La Fourche Parish.

A PROBLEM DECADES IN THE MAKING

Graves said the “sand boom” dredging plan seeks to quickly
restore some of what has taken decades to disappear.

Until the 1930s, silt and sediments carried down the
Mississippi River and deposited in the delta added nearly one
square mile (2.6 sq km) a year to Louisiana’s land mass, most
of it marsh.

But during the past 80 years, with the advent of levees to
control the flow of the Mississippi, as well as dredging and
the channelization of the river for navigation, the state has
lost about 2,300 square miles (6,000 sq km) of its coastal
lands as silt washes straight out to sea.

“The result of that is a very, very fragmented shoreline, a
very deteriorated barrier coastal area,” Graves said.

As an illustration, Graves noted that the rim of
Louisiana’s coastline is nearly 400 miles (640 km) long, but
the actual tidal shoreline — accounting for the patchwork of
islands, bays, inlets and channels — amounts to over 7,700
miles (12,400 km).

As the state’s outlying islands shrink and disappear, the
Gulf’s sea water has pushed farther north into estuaries,
killing vegetation accustomed to brackish, less salty water.

The rapid growth of onshore oil and gas facilities and
other development also has taken a toll.

But the whole process was intensified by a flurry of
hurricanes in the last several years — including Katrina and
Rita in 2005, and Gustav and Ike in 2008.

The storms punched new holes through barrier islands and
coastal beach, exposing even more marshland to saltwater
intrusion and leaving wetlands especially vulnerable to the
latest calamity, an undersea gusher spewing at least 5,000
barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 litres) of crude into the Gulf
unchecked daily since April 20.

“The land is holding on by its fingernails,” said Cathy
Norman, manager of the Edward Wisner Donation land trust that
owns property leased by the Port of Fourchon, the principal
supply harbor for the Gulf’s deep-water oil and gas industry.

“It’s just ready to fall apart, and if oil gets in here and
the plants die off, we’re going to have just all water,” she
said. “Sand is real easy to clean up. Marsh is not.”

The oil industry, too, has plenty to lose. Norman said Port
Fourchon, a hub for 60 percent of the U.S. crude supply, has
seen an average coastal retreat of nearly 50 feet (15 metres) a
year.

Norman said she hopes the current crisis in the Gulf will
help build support for coastal restoration projects like one
she oversaw about six years ago, a $500,000 endeavor in which
volunteers put in 27,000 plants to reclaim 50 acres (20
hectares) of Port Fourchon.

“It can be done,” she said.

Stock Market Analysis
(Editing by Ed Stoddard and Sandra Maler)

FEATURE-Oil spill could hasten loss of Louisiana’s marshes