By accident, Louisiana builds a new delta along its disappearing coast

The Wax Lake Delta, southwest of Morgan City, LA
The Wax Lake Delta, southwest of Morgan City, LA

St. Mary Parish, La. -- In the time it takes you to read this sentence, scientists say Louisiana will have lost a square yard or so of land to coastal erosion.

No place on the planet suffers more land loss than the coastal parishes of Louisiana.

However, the marsh south and west of Morgan City is a rare exception to that rule, and perhaps a working laboratory for how to rescue some of the coast.

Here, you will find what Field & Stream magazine dubbed an "accidental Eden," a place where thousands of acres of new delta formed in recent decades.

"It's a wonderful place," said Mike Carloss, biologist director for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.  "It's quite depressing when you're dealing with the resources that utilize these wetlands.  But if you come out here, it's the exact opposite."

In 1941, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was looking for a means of sparing Morgan City future catastrophic flooding.  Its solution was to cut a new channel from the Atchafalaya River, a straight shot to the Gulf of Mexico to siphon 30 percent of the river's flow.

On the surface, not much happened at first.  However, sediment was building on the floor of that new pass and it exploded to the surface following the 1973 floods along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya.

Since then, an estimated 30,000 acres of delta has formed.

"It's definitely the bright spot on the coast," said Cassidy Lejeune, biologist supervisor for Wildlife and Fisheries.  "There's nothing else like it."

The mud flats are impressive, but what may be more astonishing are new forests a couple miles inland, where willow trees tower 30 or 40 feet above visitors.

"I think most people would have said we might be able to do some kind of marsh creation out of this, but probably had no idea of the magnitude of that," Carloss said. "You build it and they'll come."

The Corps regularly dredges the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi and picks spots for marsh creation or man-made islands.

In Wax Lake, nature calls the shots.

At the Gulf, mud flats turn to lily pads then to marsh grass, and later sand bars morph into islands.

"We can duplicate with restoration somewhat, but we can't duplicate what nature creates itself," Carloss said.

Nature, left to its own devises, weaves together a masterpiece.

Carloss believes Wax Lake has powerful implications for other parts of the coast.  "We have the sediment load coming down the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers," he told FOX 8.  "There's a lot of possibilities here."

That is not to imply it can be duplicated everywhere along the coast.

In 1941, Atchafalaya Bay was only about five feet deep and this area of Louisiana has suffered less subsidence than many places.

The Army Corps and coastal scientists are looking at the Wax Lake Delta as they consider other spots where land might win the battle against sea.