Former swamp to teach about wetlands restoration

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The governor's coastal restoration czar, officials with environmental groups and the mayor of New Orleans gathered in the Lower 9th Ward on Friday to unveil signs at a platform overlooking 440 acres of brackish water dotted with cypress stumps. The observation deck was built by one of the groups that came to rebuild the area after Hurricane Katrina.

The four signs explain the history of the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle and why it's important to restore it and the rest of coastal Louisiana.

"This urban swamp is not just one of the best educational and accessible tools we have to teach our children about the important role wetlands play in our environment, but a healthy Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet ecosystem plays a key role in tempering storm surge for these historic Ninth Ward and St. Bernard communities," Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana, said Friday.

The Welcome sign tells visitors that in the 1960s, freshwater cypress swamp stretched east to Lake Borgne, but levees and canals turned it into brackish marsh.

"The 400-acre cypress 'ghost swamp' in front of you demonstrates the coastal land loss problem that extends throughout the Mississippi River Delta," another sign reads. "The delta was built over thousands of years by the water, sand, and mud of the Mississippi River.

But factors like the construction of levees, oil and gas canals, and shipping channels along this 'working coast' have halted the natural delta-building process and allowed salt water to penetrate deep into coastal wetlands, killing vegetation and destroying some of the most productive habitat in the world."

It goes on to say that Mississippi River Delta has lost more than a million acres of wetlands, forests, and barrier islands since 1932, and Louisiana continues to lose a football field's worth of wetlands every hour. "As the world witnessed during Hurricane Katrina, the destruction of the wetlands - a natural buffer to storm surges and winds - has made communities like the Lower 9th Ward increasingly vulnerable to storms," it states.

The signs also have QR codes that visitors can scan with smartphones to watch videos about Bayou Bienvenue and other coastal restoration projects, and numbers to call to hear locals and coastal experts talk about Louisiana's coastal crisis.

The Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation worked together on the project.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, "Not long ago, Bayou Bienvenue was a freshwater cypress swamp filled with indigenous wildlife, but after the completion of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet shipping channel, it was left decimated by saltwater intrusion.  Today, efforts are underway to restore this natural treasure. The new interactive signage will increase awareness of these efforts and the bayou's importance to coastal restoration."

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