Turning Back Time
More than 1.4 million acres of wetlands along the Gulf Coast have disappeared. Innovative conservation projects in Texas and Louisiana are bringing them back.
By T. Edward Nickens
Let's be honest. A diesel backhoe growling in a remote marsh, grubbing bucketful after bucketful of muck and mud from the bottom of a wind-whipped Gulf Coast bay, would not usually be an inspiring sight. The engine belches black smoke. The robotic boom swivels. The bucket bites into open water, streaming muck and black goo. There's nothing pretty about it. At first glance.
At first glance, there's nothing glamorous about a man-made marsh terrace either. It's just a hump of mud and cordgrass built up by a machine. What's the big deal?
The big deal is beyond the first glance. Push up a two-foot-tall ridge of sediment and seed it with marsh grass, and that little strip of high ground will trap sediments and grow. It will support even more lush reeds and spread into more marsh. There will be less erosion, less storm surge, and more ducks and other wildlife. If you build enough marsh terraces in a large, open body of water, you can turn back time 100 years, converting a white-capped expanse of brown water into lush wetlands. And that makes a backhoe a very glamorous thing, just as a marsh terrace is an ecological wonder.
This kind of vision and perspective is now driving one of Ducks Unlimited's most ambitious projects ever—and one of the most ambitious restoration initiatives attempted anywhere: The rebuilding of America's vast Gulf Coast marshes. These wetlands, largely along the Texas and Louisiana coasts, provide wintering habitat for millions of ducks. But these valuable habitats are also critically imperiled. Louisiana alone has lost a third of its coastal wetlands and is losing more and more wetlands every day.
Fortunately, the region is the focus of incredible energy and resources brought by conservationists, and DU is helping lead the charge. "We have projects that are DU projects alone, projects with private landowners, and projects with an enormous cross section of state and federal agencies and even large corporations and energy companies," says Mike Carloss, DU's southwest director of conservation programs. "We're working on projects that are 20 acres and on projects that are tens of thousands of acres. There's never been anything like it."
In such a vast landscape, conservation strategies must be similarly aspirational. "What we're doing here is mind-boggling," says Dr. Todd Merendino, DU's manager of conservation programs in Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. "Right now, DU has an active project in the engineering and design or construction phase on every national wildlife refuge and every state wildlife management area on the entire Texas coast. Many of these projects are large and very complex, perhaps atypical of what a lot of people think of when they think of DU."
But thinking big—and working big—will make the large-scale differences the Gulf Coast region so desperately needs. Consider a project called the Upper Salt Bayou Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Siphon, on McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Texas. The name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue or make the heart pound. But the idea and the setting behind this project are hugely inspiring.
Part of the Chenier Plain, a 6.5-million-acre expanse of former tallgrass prairie and marsh, much of the region is freshwater, intermediate, and brackish marsh. In 1876, a surveying engineer named H.C. Ripley described parts of the landscape as terre tremblante—the quaking earth. The ground seemed to be half-water, half-marsh, and all muck. When the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was cut into the south Texas marsh in the first half of the 20th century, enormous quantities of spoil material were piled on the north side of the canal, damming freshwater flows that replenished coastal marshes south of the canal. The changes have been breathtaking. Heavy infestations of cattails and phragmites have pushed out native vegetation. In a vast wetland complex stretching for 30 miles, a faucet of life-giving freshwater slowed to a trickle.
DU is helping reconnect the landscape's natural plumbing. At Mc- Faddin NWR, four massive 900-foot-long pipe-lined tunnels are being cored 20 feet under the navigational waterway using laser-guided cutting heads that churn through the Delta clay. Digging a single tunnel can take up to two weeks. A sister siphon project has begun some four miles away at the state's J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area. When all the pipes and floodgates and baffles are in place, freshwater will once again spill at a more natural rate through this corner of the Chenier Plain. The beneficiaries will be the mottled ducks and fulvous and black-bellied whistling ducks that nest here in the spring, the canvasbacks that feed here in winter to prepare for their long flights north, and a host of other wildlife.
"The natural cycle has been long gone down there," says Merendino. "But that's about to change."
The changes are coming in the nick of time. Just ask Cassidy Lejeune. Born and raised in Louisiana, DU's manager of conservation programs in south Louisiana has watched his beloved state's coastline turn to tatters. Now, 300 miles east of those subterranean siphons under the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, he's working to turn back time deep in the marshes where Louisiana meets the Gulf.
It's a different spin on a story too often told along these shores. Levees along the lower Mississippi River have blocked the river's overflow and stolen its marsh-building sediments. The strategy at Bay Denesse and a neighboring open-water area called Quarantine Bay is a flip-flop of the subterranean approach along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Through the Bay Denesse Delta Water Management Project, new crevasses, or gaps, will be carved into riverbanks to open up water flow from the river to the bays. With partners including the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, National Wildlife Federation, Cajun Fishing Adventures, Chevron, and Phillips 66, DU will jump-start a marsh-building process that will take on a life of its own. "Once you connect the open water to the river," Lejeune explains, "you get mud flats that can turn into emergent marsh. You literally build land by mimicking what the river did long before humans stepped into the picture."
And that's where those not-so-exciting marsh terraces play a very exciting role. Marsh-buggy backhoes will fan out across the two Louisiana bays, pushing up nearly three miles of segmented terraces. Built of 105,000 cubic yards of rich soil—the equivalent of more than 21 million gallons of muck—the terraces will act as aquatic speed bumps, slowing down the new sources of fresh river water and allowing sediments to settle. "In essence," Lejeune explains, "we're building micro-deltas to trap sediment, which will trap more sediment." Planted with marsh natives such as smooth cordgrass and seashore paspalum, the terraces literally turn open water into marsh. In time, mallards and wigeon will wing into the lee of those vegetated shores. Mottled ducks, a nonmigratory species found only in the southern United States and Mexico, will nest in the protection of dense reeds and grasses. Redfish and spotted sea trout will feed along the marsh edges, and anglers will be there too.
The man-made wetlands at Bay Denesse and Quarantine Bay are hardly lone examples. Since 2002, DU has built more than 131 miles of marsh terraces in Louisiana. All along the Gulf Coast, DU has partnered in projects to build rock breakwaters to protect fragile marshes as well as stone weirs to check the flow of saltwater across tidal channels. In some areas, beach dunes and marshes will be restored with dredge spoil. On private lands, impoundments are shored up to turn back a storm's fury. On public properties, DU partners with agencies to build access points for hunters and anglers. "I've seen firsthand how quickly our coast has washed away," Lejeune says, "so it's particularly rewarding to be involved in projects like these."
No single project stands alone. Each is part and parcel of DU's Gulf Coast approach: Save, rebuild, and restore the vast sweep of wetlands on the nation's southern verge. Move forward one breached levee and one 1,000-yard underwater tunnel at a time.
And do all this in our lifetime.
It's that kind of vision that will bring back the wetlands of the Gulf Coast. At first glance, that marsh buggy backhoe pulling a bucket through the mud might not be as inspiring as a pintail with its scimitar wings slicing into the decoys.
But from DU's perspective, it is very, very close.
Build an Island, Bring Back the Birds
"Buy land," Mark Twain once said. "They're not making it anymore." But the famous chronicler of the Mississippi River would take those words back if he found himself at the 66,000-acre Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, today. There, DU and its partners—the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority—have done just that. They have built a brand-new island near the very boot-tip of the state.
By reopening an old riverbank breach deep in the marsh, scientists and engineers uncorked sediment-laden flow that then collected in a sludgy "splay" below the cut. That sediment was dredged and then pumped for three-quarters of a mile to create a two-acre island that now is home to Caspian and Forster's terns. Soon it will provide perfect nesting habitat for mottled ducks. And anglers now have greater access to redfish-rich waters through the newly opened crevasse.
Carloss says it is a perfect example of how DU works in the region. "Everything we do along the Gulf Coast is interconnected," he explains. "What's good for ducks is good for the environment, and it's often great for anglers and birders too."
CORPORATIONS for Continental Conservation
We're all in this together.
We share the planet's resources, so Ducks Unlimited and the energy sector share a vision to conserve and protect our land and water. Our natural resources provide food, fiber, and energy while also supporting the life cycle needs of wildlife species that depend on healthy habitats.
DU salutes our many energy partners, who understand that they must make a difference in conservation to make a difference in business. Without their investments in wildlife and wildlife habitat, our world would be a far less beautiful place.
A Shared Vision for the Texas Coast
For generations, the Trull Foundation has worked hard to protect and enhance natural habitats along the Texas Gulf coast, especially in Matagorda County. The foundation funds environmental conservation and supports the values of responsible land stewardship. Recognizing the shared goals of both organizations, the Trull Foundation has supported DU's conservation efforts since 1991. The foundation's gifts to DU's Gulf Coast Initiative in Texas enable DU to conduct important science, policy, and outreach efforts, as well as conserve habitats important to wintering waterfowl and other migratory birds. Additionally, protecting coastal marsh for wildlife helps buffer Texas communities from storm surge and flooding from tropical storms. The foundation's initiative-level gifts give DU the flexibility to direct funding where it is needed most. To date, the Trull Foundation has donated over $220,000 to protect and enhance Texas habitats.