Wax Lake Delta Tour Showcases New Land
By Philip Russo, Plaquemines Parish Outreach Coordinator, Mississippi River Delta Restoration Coalition
A couple weeks ago, I traveled down the Atchafalaya River’s Wax Lake Outlet on a boat tour attended by state officials, coastal restoration advocates and media personnel. The outlet, constructed in 1941 to reduce flood stages at Morgan City, has had the serendipitous effect of creating its own delta—one particle of clay at a time.
Our boats approached one of the outlet’s delta islands. This large island, and others like it, formed over the last two decades. As a young man growing up here, I explored the warm, muddy bayous and dense cypress swamps surrounding Morgan City. There was deep satisfaction in knowing where I could hook catfish or stalk alligator. However, I didn’t understand the significance of the area gaining land. Complex wetland ecosystems look simple when you don’t see the “swamp for the trees,” and I was oblivious to the larger role this watery landscape played in supporting our economy, protecting our communities and incubating our culture.
When we pulled ashore, Paul Kemp, a coastal oceanographer and geologist at Louisiana State University, said, “If we tried to propose a sediment diversion like this, they would say we’re crazy,” because the Wax Lake Outlet is a very large diversion with no control structures. However, “when you look at the landloss maps, this is the one place that’s [building land].”
As an experienced professor, Kemp knows how to put this into perspective. In addition to building land, he described how the Atchafalaya’s sediment-rich waters help salt and brackish marshes, that line the nearby bays, keep up with sea level rise. “They are sustained by mud that comes into the bays and then gets re-suspended through tidal and wind action.”
He concluded that, these systems need mineral sediment, not just decaying organic matter and “deltas just don’t do very well in the absence of a river.”
When talking about coastal restoration in terms of rivers, deltas, and islands, it’s easy to focus on the sediment, especially if you’re hanging around a geologist. But the diversity and robustness of the plants, and thus the wildlife, is undeniable. According to Bren Haase at the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, “You just don’t see this in deteriorating deltas; you see this in building deltas.”
The Louisiana Wildlife Federation was perceptive in organizing this trip to give state officials, restoration advocates, and media personnel hands on experience with a growing delta. For me personally, it confirmed that I’ve come a long way in understanding and appreciating our wetlands. And it’s encouraging to see I haven’t made this journey alone since recent polls show that protecting and restoring our coast is a major public priority.
To those who haven’t had a chance, go to Wax Lake and see for yourself the possibilities for our coast.