Deborah Schultz is the education coordinator for the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, a watershed restoration program in southeast Louisiana.

Monday, 21 Aug 2000

THIBODAUX, La.

Today I will travel 20 minutes to Houma to meet with a film crew from CNN that is coming to film local teachers and school children. Just what is CNN doing coming to Houma, Louisiana? Let me back up and explain.

Feeling swamped.

When I landed in this part of the country eight years ago, I felt I had landed on another planet. The name itself is exotic, with Barataria referring to the impenetrability encountered by early explorers, and Terrebonne meaning “the good earth.” This is a land of vast marshes, swamps, and bayous, of abundant wildlife, “Cajuns,” and the rich culture the Cajuns have created. In my time with the Estuary Program, I have come to recognize that this is indeed a unique corner of the world, and it is disappearing before my eyes.

In order to become a part of the National Estuary Program, a nominated area must be proven both nationally significant and threatened. Barataria-Terrebonne had no trouble with either. Estuarine systems are known to be among the most biologically productive systems in the world, and B-T is no exception. With substantial finfish, oysters, shrimp, and crabs, and annual commercial fisheries landings of more than $220 million, these wetlands and bays are a mecca for both commercial and recreational fishermen alike, and they help to feed Louisiana and the nation.

Yet the threats to this area are numerous. Foremost is land loss. The wetlands of Barataria-Terrebonne are disappearing at a rate of 25 square miles per year. That is equal to a football-field-sized area every 45 minutes. Unlike other regions, our wetlands are not being filled in, not developed, not paved over. Ours are subsiding into the Gulf of Mexico. In order to understand this, one must understand how this area was created.

A view of the estuary from above.

Barataria-Terrebonne is a gift of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi receives the drainage waters of two-thirds of the United States and two Canadian provinces. The “Big Muddy” has historically carried her cargo of water and sediment across the continent, and, upon reaching the shallow continental shelf, she disperses her load. In the annual cycles of spring snow melt, her northern tributaries would swell her load to uncontainable limits, and she would rush toward the gulf, spilling nutrient-rich waters and rich earth sediments over her banks, and across the land, layer by layer. Every few thousand years, she would alter her course, taking a new route to the sea, and replenishing areas she had previously abandoned. That is what built Barataria-Terrebonne. And our tampering with that dynamic and powerful system is what threatens to destroy it.

In our typical way of thinking — short-term — we non-native Americans have restricted the Great River. We have confined her to her banks with hundreds of miles of levees. Flood protection efforts in the Barataria-Terrebonne, predominantly for the neighboring city of New Orleans, have kept us safe in the short term, but we have sent the river’s bed-load of sediments cascading off the edge of the continental shelf, into deep ocean waters. Ironically, we have also made ourselves more vulnerable to destruction by storms from the gulf because as our buffer of wetlands recedes, we receive more of the undampened fury. We have sterilized the womb of America, and set in motion what will eventually destroy the Good Earth, unless drastic measures are taken.

Canals now cut through the marsh.

Without the River’s annual nourishment, our wetlands are sinking, subsiding into the gulf. We have exacerbated the rate of demise by criss-crossing our vast marshes with canals — both for navigation and oil exploration. These wounds do not heal, but act as a cancer, enlarging from wave action and allowing salt water to intrude far into the system.

These wounds are not the only price we have paid for our abundant oil deposits that help fuel the nation. Barataria-Terrebonne has had more oil spills than any other location in the U.S. The marshes are also scarred with the remains of “produced water” discharges, highly saline and mildly radioactive waters that accompany oil when it is extracted from the Earth. Until very recently, these waters were legally discharged from open pits in the marsh.

Barataria-Terrebonne is plagued with other water quality problems as well, with high levels of atrazine, other pesticides, nutrients from fertilizers and sewage, and sewage-related bacteria from poorly operating or non-existent sewage treatment.

Wading ibises in the estuary.

These problems have resulted in habitat degradation. This degradation, as well as the introduction of exotic species, threatens our native and migratory populations of wildlife. When wildlife is threatened, Cajuns, who have made a way of life centered on wildlife resources, are threatened as well.

Our children know what is happening. Our children are angry and afraid. Our children — in cooperation with the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce, the Terrebonne Parish School Board, the Diocese of Houma Thibodaux, and the B-T Estuary Program — have initiated operation S.O.S. (Save Our Soil). Our youth have written to the governor. They have written to the president. And they have written to every major newspaper and television network across the country.

Today, CNN is responding.