Louisiana scores one coastal success story by accident - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Louisiana scores one coastal success story by accident

Updated:
X marks the spot-- new delta being built at the mouth of the Wax Lake Outlet X marks the spot-- new delta being built at the mouth of the Wax Lake Outlet
Green areas of USGS map show new land built in recent decades in green Green areas of USGS map show new land built in recent decades in green
USGS Maps show before and after views of Wax Lake and Atchafalaya deltas USGS Maps show before and after views of Wax Lake and Atchafalaya deltas
The Atchafalaya River snakes toward the Gulf of Mexico in St. Mary Parish The Atchafalaya River snakes toward the Gulf of Mexico in St. Mary Parish

St. Mary Parish, La.- While coastal Louisiana steadily melts into the Gulf of Mexico, a not-so-little ray of hope can be found southeast of Morgan City.

Nature is building an accidental delta.

In two spots, near the mouth of the Atchafalaya River, muddy waters win a battle with the sea.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regularly dredges the Atchafalaya to keep the channel open for navigation.

The Corps then uses pumps the dredge material near the shoreline, producing man-made islands and marsh.

However, what happens 10 miles to the west stirs the hearts and imaginations of coastal scientists and activists.

In the Wax Lake Delta, nature and gravity produce new land in a way that more closely mimics a river untamed by levees.

"It designed it itself," notes Paul Kemp, a geologist with the National Audubon Society.

"We need to work more closely with nature, rather than fighting, and we get a lot of cool stuff for free."

Wax Lake dates back to the 1940's, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cut a 30-mile long diversion to funnel off some of the Atchafalaya's flow and spare a catastrophic flood in Morgan City.

It worked.

Then, not much happened, until a spring flood in 1973 sent a giant plug of mud and dirt down the Atchafalaya and into Wax Lake.

Jump started, nature did the rest, sewing together a maze of tiny bayous, islands and mud flats.

"There's been a staggering amount of land building," said Mark Davis, Director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University Law School.

"It tells you how much sediment is moving through those rivers," Davis said.

While Davis noted the unexpected sediment load and the land it produces might diminish the Morganza Floodway's capacity to carry water,  he is "more impressed by the land-building capability of the river."

By air, even in high tide, the new delta pops through the surface, a mix of muddy water, greens and pastels.

Davis noted the Wax Lake Outlet actually carries much more sediment than meets the untrained eye, as sand and dirt fall to the water bottom.

Louisiana's Coastal Master Plan envisions large scale fresh water diversion projects, some costing hundreds of millions of dollars, to push back salt water.

Critics, including many commercial fishermen, fear dramatic changes in salinity could produce catastrophic effects on oysters, shrimp and other fisheries.

Others question the wisdom of pouring money and effort into restoration only to be swamped by sea level rise and subsidence over the next century.

"The only thing I would say is get yourself a river," Kemp said.

"When you have a river, you have the possibility of dealing with sea level rise."

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