PART III of Nature's Revenge: Louisiana's Vanishing Wetlands from American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR NewsSM. On the Internet at

September 2002

Can the Plan to Save the Coast Really Work?

by Daniel Zwerdling

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An unlikely coalition of scientists, business leaders, and politicians is trying to launch one of the most complicated construction projects in U.S. history. They want to unleash the Mississippi River, to undo the damage that the government has caused by spending the last century taming it. They say that's the only way to stop the vast wetlands that form Louisiana's coast from vanishing. Every year, a chunk of Louisiana's coast the size of Manhattan crumbles and sinks into the sea. Studies suggest that if the trend continues, major industries could be disrupted, from oil-and-gas, to seafood, to shipping. But scientists acknowledge that as they try to repair nature, they might trigger a new round of side effects.


You'd think that a fisherman like George Barisich would be thrilled that officials want to save the wetlands in Louisiana. But he says wait until you hear his story. As he begins to tell it, the setting sun is turning the sky pink, he's dropping his shrimp nets—like giant spider webs—into a bay on Louisiana's coast. And Barisich says, he's living proof that when the government tries to solve one problem, they just create another.

"Do these scientists really know everything they're talkin' about?" asks Barisich. "Cause a lot of predictions they made, were so far from reality—it's funny."

Barisich looks like Groucho Marx in blue jeans. He says, don't get him wrong, he knows that the shrimp and crabs and redfish down here spend a lot of their lives in the wetlands, so if the wetlands keep crumbling, fishermen could be doomed. But, he says, he's been catching shrimp in this bay since he was a kid. He worked on this white and orange boat with his father. And over the years, Barisich learned where the shrimp like to feed and he learned the best cycles of the moon. He was sort of like an angler who outwits his trout. Then a few years ago, the shrimp stopped showing up.

"They never came in, they never came in," explains Barisich. "So you lost the production from that particular area, and you just had to get up and leave."

The Corps Rebuilds

Every fisherman knows that some years are better than others. But Barisich says he knew instantly what was wrong: It was the government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had just built a pilot project to try to rebuild the wetlands.

"They made a change without exploring all the potential hazards of doing something of this nature," describes Barisich. "Now, I know for a fact that nothing has ever been done on this scale before. That's what bothers us. They're gonna hurt me and it's just like nobody cares."

They call the pilot project Caernarvon. It's a long concrete structure that sits on the banks of the Mississippi, and at first, it doesn't look like something that can help transform the region and cause a legal uproar. It looks like a small dam.

Jack Fredine supervises the project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The official name is the Caernarvon Water Diversion Project.

"We're downstream of New Orleans—about 20 miles," Fredine says. "We have a structure that's built here into the levee of the Mississippi River, which is here for flood control. It's like five square holes going underneath the river from 500 feet and each hole is 15 feet square."

Scientists say that the vast wetlands in Louisiana are vanishing partly because the U.S. Army tamed this river too much. The Army built two thousand miles of levees all along the Mississippi, so the river would stop flooding. But studies over the last few decades show that these wetlands need to be flooded. They need regular doses of river-water and mud to thrive—the levees are starving them to death. So the government has launched the Caernarvon project to see if it can revive the wetlands—without flooding people's homes. When Fredine gives the word, a workman presses some buttons.

And suddenly, the placid surface of the Mississippi River begins bubbling and roiling. Huge gates are opening under water, and uncovering the giant holes, and the river is pouring through the levee into a marsh on the other side.

"The original concept of this was to mimic the spring floods," explains Fredine, "to replenish the marshes with freshwater that would have been coming through if the levees weren't here in the way to block out the floods."

So, in a way, technology hurt nature in the first place, and now they're using nature to repair nature, to mimic it.

"It's a start," says Fredine.

Wetlands Need to be Flooded

Some scientists say it's an exciting "start". We take a boat to see the results. At the moment, we're whizzing down a channel a few miles downstream from Caernarvon.

Denise Reed spends a lot of her life in these wetlands: she studies them for the University of New Orleans. Reed would make a great scout leader—she's got no-nonsense hair, an infectious smile, and she forges through the grasses on this wetland like she's leading an expedition.

"We're going to go over to see some marsh over there—by those trees," Reed says. "And that's where we're going to see how the freshwater, the nutrients and the sediments coming out of the diversion structure are revitalizing the marsh. So we're gonna go see. It's right over on the other side there…Look at all this wonderful green, you know, there's nice big growth on these plants."

Reed says if we had walked here before they started the Caernarvon project, it would have felt completely different. This wetland was sick back then, and when wetlands are sick, the soil gets all mushy and turns into open water. But now we're walking on solid ground.

"You look at those ponds over there in the distance," Reed explains, "you see how the grass is gradually moving in and filling in. You can see that just here, you can see that grass growing out into the middle of this area. This would have all been bare. What is land loss? Land loss is marsh turning to open water. Here we've got open water in ponds filling in and becoming marsh. A lot of people think it's hopeless down here in coastal Louisiana, but just coming down here and looking at this makes us believe that we can do this."

But these changes have disrupted some people's lives. The problem is, the minute you put your finger on a map and say, 'Let's tinker with nature here, let's mimic the old floods there,' chances are that you might flood somebody's backyard. Or you'll disrupt the bays and inlets where George Barisich does his fishing.

A Plague of Killer Mussells

The way he tells the story, the shrimp gave just the first sign that Caernarvon was changing his world. Then, something strange started happening to his oysters. Barisich and his family had been producing oysters in this area for years. Fishermen like Barisich leased thousands of acres—from the state government— on the bottom of the bay, and they built oyster farms.

"These were the best things that's on the market," asserts Barisich. "I mean you could stack these against any other oyster, any part of the country, and they was always in demand."

But suddenly, a plague of killer mussels swarmed into the bay. You can't eat this kind of mussel—they're a nuisance. They attach to the oyster shells.

Within three years, his oysters were worthless. State studies suggest that it was mainly because of Caernarvon. When the government unleashed the Mississippi and sent river-water and mud gushing into this area, they lowered the salt content of the bay. Those changes were good for the marsh, but they pushed out the shrimp that like salty environments, and they attracted the killer mussels that don't.

"And that's what gets fisherman hot. It would be just like if you had a piece of property and you farmed tomatoes on it and they wanted to build an interstate," explains Barisich. "And they just took it and said, 'Too bad!'"

A $14 Billion Project

Fishermen aren't the only ones who say projects like Caernarvon can backfire. A few scientists are worrying, too. State and federal officials are planning to ask Congress to launch a massive project to help rescue the wetlands: they want to build more projects like Caernarvon, bigger projects like Caernarvon, up and down the Mississippi River. The group figures they'll need at least $14 billion to start, and one government official told me the project could cost two or three times that much. But a few voices are saying 'Not so fast.'

"I do not believe that we are ready to scale to a $14 billion effort at this time," says Joe Suhayda, who just retired as director of a water research center at Louisiana State University. Suhayda says Louisiana's wetlands are a national treasure, and the country should urgently try to protect them. But he says construction projects like Caernarvon won't work magic, no matter how much money they cost. The damage in the wetlands is too vast.

Suhayda explains, "I was in fact talking with the governor, and he actually asked a question, 'Can we actually save the coast?' 'No, ' I said, from the standpoint of returning it to a former condition, I don't think we can save the coast. They'll be small areas that may be improved."

And Suhayda says they need more studies to pinpoint which areas could improve, and which strategies will work best. Nobody's ever tried to restore nature on such a massive scale.

In Louisiana, this is not a popular view. The state's leaders say it's going to be hard enough to convince Congress to spend billions on wetlands when they're scrounging for money to fight terrorists. The last thing they need is dissent. Suhayda says some of his colleagues have warned him to back off.

"The phrase that's been used is that 'you're too honest,'" says Suhayda. "I've not really had anybody say, 'Don't say this,' but I have had people say that in the wrong light, the things that you say could hurt the effort that everybody thinks should go forward."

Back in the wetlands, Denise Reed is tromping through the new mud and grasses that she says Caernarvon helped create. She and most other researchers say there's no time left for doubts. The country has to do something dramatic, to try to save wetlands, now.

"We can't wait another ten years," says Reed. "There won't be much marsh left to save. We can't afford to go slower. The problem is so serious that action is clearly needed. This isn't just about marshes, it's about the future of coastal Louisiana."

She says it's true, scientists don't know yet exactly how they'll do it; they'll learn from projects like Caernarvon as they go along. Reed says everybody should have learned something from all those centuries of battling the Mississippi River. There's no quick fix when you try to fix nature.

Some Win, Some Lose

"No it's not going to be easy," says Reed. "We're gonna alter the way things are gonna look down here. They're not gonna be the same anymore. I meant they're not gonna be the same if we don't do anything, because it's all gonna go to hell in a hand basket. People's lives are going to change."

When fishermen like George Barisich sell their seafood to the local dealer, they understand that lesson better than anybody. Barisich pulls up to the dock next to a shed on the banks of a narrow channel, a workman jumps into the hold of his boat and starts shoveling shrimp on a rusty conveyor.

Barisich and other fishermen have sued the state government of Louisiana for hurting their oysters, not the shrimp. And the courts have ordered the state to pay them staggering amounts of damages. The cases are tied up in appeals, but the oystermen could theoretically win more than $700 million—they would bankrupt the state budget. Barisich says he'd get more than $4 million himself.

"You know the kind of money that I would get—I would be able to retire," says Barisich.

Do you think you deserve it?

"Me, personally —I deserve all the breaks I can get. I think I deserve it in principle, because it would show the government that you just can't jack people over. You know, people have rights."

Some people might say sometimes when you have a crisis, a few people have to suffer for the public good.

"I don't want to be a part of the few that suffer," says Barisich. "There's got to be another way."

State officials say they've learned their lesson: they're starting another pilot project like Caernarvon at another spot on the Mississippi, and they're already compensating fishermen who might get hurt. Scientists say they'll probably face other problems along the way that they never expected.