Wonders in the Wax Lake Delta

This piece was originally posted on the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana’s Coast Currents blog.

By Scott Madere, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana

The first clue that things were going to be different today was the blue rectangle under the “No Parking” sign at the boat launch. “Beware of Bears,” it read. I’ve lived my whole life in Louisiana and I’ve never seen one of those. But it was only one of many firsts for me as we headed into the Wax Lake Delta that morning, to discover one of Louisiana’s most pristine paradises… and possibly the key to saving Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.

With me on the excursion were about 30 companions from the National Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. While many of us were locals, there were plenty of explorers from Washington, D.C., some of whom had never been in a Louisiana marsh before.

It was only fitting, then, that their first experience should begin with a short trip through the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the shipping highway that unites the entire Louisiana coast, and the path to our destination, the Wax Lake Outlet. Our party traveled in five boats on calm waters, past barges and fishermen, the usual signs of activity on the Intracoastal. I found myself thinking ahead to what I would find in the Delta, almost missing something truly extraordinary happening on the bank to my right.

“Look… it’s an eagle,” said one of my boat companions.

Sure enough, a sight that had eluded me for many years appeared in the distance. A juvenile bald eagle, in flight, came in for a landing on the bank. As I captured his slow descent with my camera, a mature bald eagle emerged from the irises nearby. I was stunned. I had never seen a bald eagle in the wild before, and within a span of seconds, I had seen two. It was an experience that reminded me that there never really is anything routine about the Louisiana marsh. It’s a unique wonder each time you visit.

Before long we reached the intersection with the Wax Lake Outlet, turning south toward Atchafalaya Bay. The outlet was created in 1942 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to divert the waters of the Atchafalaya River from possibly flooding Morgan City. The outlet itself is a lot like the Intracoastal Waterway, deep, straight and wide. But the interesting part of what’s happening in the Wax Lake Outlet is where it ends, in Atchafalaya Bay. That’s what everyone on this trip was there to see. That’s where we encountered the Wax Lake Delta, a rapidly building land mass… an unforeseen benefit of diverting the Atchafalaya River.

The delta forming at the bottom of the outlet wasn’t noticed until the early 1970’s. As it happened, decades of sand and fine silt moving from the Atchafalaya River into the Wax Lake Outlet began to accumulate at the outlet’s mouth. Before long, channelization occurred and lobes of land began to arise where no land had been before. Louisiana is not losing land in this section of the coast. It is building land, and building it quickly (geologically speaking, of course).

For this reason, the Wax Lake Delta serves as one of the best hopes that coastal researchers have for making the case that river diversions work, and that these diversions can be made elsewhere along the coast, rebuilding and restoring coastal wetlands.

When our squadron of boats reached one of the Delta’s landmasses, the proof was right there for all to see. New land, rising from the Gulf of Mexico. Covered in lotus plants gone to seed, the soil was firm and claylike underfoot. It was not like swamp mud. This felt like land that was built to last.

The enthusiasm for what we were seeing spread across our entire party. To see the Wax Lake Delta firsthand is to see what Louisiana once was and what it could once again be. Everywhere I looked, I saw shorebirds, grasses, flowering plants, lilies, fish jumping and swirling. This was a real and thriving ecosystem, nourished by a steady flow of fresh water and silt from a river determined to reconnect with the marsh.

As we boated south into the Atchafalaya bay, honestly, I began to wonder why we were heading into open water. That’s when the boats slowed and one of my companions hopped out into the bay. He landed in water that was a little less than knee-deep. That’s when it hit me. We were not looking at today’s land, but rather, tomorrow’s. In a few years, this open area of the bay will be solid ground, as more sediment is deposited and plants begin to root. Already, aquatic plants can be seen just below the surface, forming anchors to trap the fine silt suspended in the gentle waves from the Wax Lake Outlet.

Many in our party spent half an hour wading through the shallow water, all smiles as brown pelicans circled overhead. It struck me that we were the very first people to stand on this new part of Louisiana.

A trip into Wax Lake Delta is invigorating to those who are committed to the future of our coast. It represents a victory in the effort to bring vitality and hope back to our wetlands. If 25 square miles worth of new land can be created accidentally by the Wax Lake Outlet, imagine what could be done purposefully, with proper planning, good science and willpower to make it happen.

It was very hard to leave the Wax Lake Delta behind. I’ve rarely felt happier out in the Louisiana marsh. The only thing that would have made the day better would have been to see one of those bears the little blue sign warned me about. But there’s always next time. And at the rate that I’m seeing wonders in this delta, I would judge that possibility likely.