Revisiting the Wetlands
Hurricane Katrina came ashore just east of New Orleans and the
damage to the city and surrounding region was devastating. If
not for the 40 miles of marshes between New Orleans and the Gulf
of Mexico, the impact would have been much worse.
Fifty-three percent of Americans live along the coast among natural
disasters like Katrina, and tidal wetlands are critical buffers
that protect coastal communities. In addition to shoreline protection,
wetlands provide other important functions such as supporting
commercial and recreational fisheries, which are especially important
in Louisiana, filtering pollutants, and providing habitat for
many plant and animal species.
But in Louisiana and elsewhere, we are losing wetlands at an alarming
rate. In Louisiana, an average of 75 km2 (more than 18,000 acres)
of wetlands are lost every year. The causes vary, but include
(1) construction of levees along the Mississippi River that starve
the marshes of sediment, (2) canals and pipelines constructed
for oil and natural gas fields, (3) natural subsidence in the
Mississippi delta, and (4) climate change, especially when it
contributes to an increase in the sea level.
A $14 billion plan, “Coast 2050”, aims to restore
and protect more than 10,000 km2 (nearly 2.5 million acres) of
Louisiana’s marsh and swamp during the next 50 years. But
the plan is stymied by lack of support from Congress and the White
House. It’s time to rethink how we manage and protect our
coastal resources so the outcome will not be worse the next time
Katrina, or something else, comes along.
Christopher Craft is an associate professor at
SPEA, IUB. His research focuses on biogeochemical linkages among
vegetation, soils, and soil fauna, and the effects of human activities
on these linkages. He particularly uses wetlands as a model for
these links. Professor Craft received his Ph.D. from North Carolina
State University in 1987.