But now, we're looking at a ragged patchwork. There are thousands of streams
and lakes and canals: they're eating away at the grasslands like cancer.
Bill Good nods his head toward the window, "Look down there, see those fishing boats in that bay?" When he flew over this spot the first time, back in the 1980s, that "bay" was solid ground. Satellite images show that every day, a chunk of land the size of a football field crumbles and turns into water.
Correspondent Daniel Zwerdling surveys the wetlands. Photo: William Brangham/NOW with Bill Moyers
"That scale is monumental and the significance is really hard to put into words," says Good.
That's why the government officials are inspecting the coast from the helicopter on this day. They say if the country doesn't do something dramatic to save this region, it could hurt the American economy. Bill Good says it would cripple the state.
"It's very hard to get your mind wrapped around how large and important and productive and unique all of this is," says Good. "To see it simply dying is a tragedy. A tragedy of immense proportions."
It took nature thousands of years to create these wetlands. If you want to understand how Americans are destroying them, it helps to get back on Earth.
The Mississippi River Photo: William Brangham/NOW with Bill Moyers
A hugely successful disaster
Oliver Houck runs the environment program at Tulane University Law School, and on a recent evening, he leads the way to one of the spots that helped trigger the wetlands crisis in the first place.
"Well, we're on the banks of the Mississippi River and these are the levees we're about to cross ... .it's a monster system."
To get there, we park near some old wooden houses next to the railroad tracks in New Orleans, and we scramble up the grassy embankment that looks over the river.
"The banks here are about 20 feet high," explains Houck, "and when we cross the banks, you'll see on the other side [that] if these levees were not here, that water would be at about eaves' level across the houses behind us."
I always wondered what "levees" meant. A levee is a wall. A levee is a wall to keep the river out of your living room.
Houck says before people built these walls, the giant Mississippi helped build America. Every day, the river and its tributaries washed millions of pounds of soil from all over the country down to the Gulf of Mexico.
"You can imagine what it would take in dump trucks to bring half a million tons of silt to south Louisiana," says Houck. "Well, it would take about two hundred thousand, two-and-half ton dump trucks every day, driving from Minnesota, from Rapid City, from Pittsburgh, from Denver. And in so doing, it brings down these enormous, enormous loads of earth to the mouth of the Mississippi."
Every year or so, Houck says, it would rain so much that the river would gush out of its banks, and all that mud and goo would spread out along the coast.
"And that's what built south Louisiana," Houck says. "The Mississippi built five million acres of land. A huge amount of land was wetland."
But when French settlers showed up in the 1700s, they tried to stop the Mississippi from flooding: they started building these walls. Eventually, the U.S. Army took over the job, and every time they thought they'd conquered nature, the river proved them wrong. So the army built more walls and they built them higher, they've built two thousand miles of levees as of today along the Mississippi River and its branches. And Houck says, the army has finally won the war—they've tamed the Mississippi.
"And so," describes Houck, "the project was—from an engineering point of view— brilliant, brilliant. It was hugely successful. From an environmental standpoint, it was a disaster."
Next: Dying Wetlands