by Julia-Claire Evans
How industry has changed Louisiana's waterways and why we need to start paying more attention.
I was a window kid. Most kids my age grew up taking long car rides with portable DVD players or iPods and MP3 players in hand. Not me. I sat glued to the window, taking in everything.
Both of my parents are from Houma, and I like to say I halfway grew up there.
Long car rides were spent winding along Highway 90 from Lafayette, snaking through the sugar cane fields of New Iberia, Franklin and Patterson, over the rushing Atchafalaya in Morgan City, and promptly dropping into the swamps of St. Mary Parish.
Keep going past Amelia, Gibson and Donner and you reach the largest town, Houma, before the world allows itself to be overrun by the mush of marsh and open bayou that is the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
Except that coast has lost about 1,023 miles since I was born.
I grew up in that mush. Some of my happiest days were spent fishing with my uncles and grandfathers around and south of Houma, in Bayou Black or the marshes of Cocodrie, Dularge and Grand Isle.
Lately on my drives, I’ve been noticing the changes.
I see how high the river gets on the Morgan City floodwall, covering the painted name of the city, chocolate milk-colored licks of water sloshing along the top of the wall after a heavy rain.
I see the dead trees lining the marsh on the way to Dularge. Large, towering cypress that used to boast bright colors of green and blow in the wind sit still and silent, gray and skeletal, victims of saltwater intrusion.
I see the small, grass-covered marsh islands where we used to cast our fishing lines around Grand Isle and Cocodrie slowly give way to saltier water, turning the grass brown, then to sand and mud, then to nothing.
The causes of this phenomenon are plentiful.
In the early 20th century, we boxed in the roaring Mississippi with levees to stop its rushing waters from changing course and flooding settled land. In doing so, we starved the delta from nutrients carried by the river, and land gave way to water.
However, another major impact is something that hits close to home for many Louisianans. Oil infrastructure.
Miles and miles of canals have been cut through marsh and swamp to create open water since oil became a large part of Louisiana industry in the 1920s, killing necessary vegetation and natural barriers to the saltwater coast in the process.
Bob Marshall, a reporter for the Times-Picayune, outlined just how much of this area had been lost and how in his 2019 project, “Lost Lands.”
As canals are dug from towns like Houma down to the coast, saltwater makes its way inland, killing vegetation and allowing for the loose soil left behind to be washed away.
Oil and gas infrastructure like these canals have contributed to 36 to 60 percent of the loss of our coast, Marshall said.
If you’re not actually from South Louisiana, this may not mean much to you. Sure, some people might lose their jobs and even their homes, but what will a non-coastal Louisiana resident lose?
Do you like seafood? Sure you do, and the seafood you like needs a very specific place to live. South Louisiana gives you 50 percent of the nation’s shrimp crop, 35 percent of its blue crabs and 40 percent of its oysters, Marshall said.
What about driving your car? Fifty percent of the nation’s oil refining takes place in Louisiana. We’re the No. 1 export state in the nation and gas jumped 46 cents in three days after Katrina, Marshall said.
Now you’re asking yourself, “Why don’t they do something about it? Why don’t these people look around and see their changing home and want to stop it?”
The answer again lies in oil and industry. In a state that consistently puts industry first, sometimes its own people are put last.
For example, a bill was entered into the Louisiana ballot last year by Republican Sen. Mark Abraham from Cameron Parish. Amendment 5, as it was called, would have given large property tax breaks to larger industries.
In a state where public education is largely funded by property taxes and is consistently ranked in the top three worst states for education, this would’ve been detrimental.
Amendment 5 was not passed, and this gives me hope.
I, like many people who grew up south of Interstate 10, have a family who has called this land home for generations. We know its beauty, its sounds and even its tastes. The culture is unmatched. I may be biased, but I believe South Louisiana is the most magical place in the country.
I would love for my family and friends to live in this special place for as long as possible. But small towns like Houma are especially vulnerable.
Residents of coastal towns like Houma repeatedly vote against regulation of industry, something Arlie Russell Hochschild writes in her book about residents in the areas around Lake Charles, “Strangers in Their Own Land.”
“The politicians who most won their trust offered no help in cleaning the place up,” Hochschild said. “As for threats to coastal Louisiana from climate change, no one they voted for thought it was real.”
No one thought it was real.
The dead swamp and marshland is real. The aerial pictures that show how much “land space” on a map of Louisiana is actually open water is real. The disappearing marsh islands are real.
The fact that places we call home like Houma, Thibodeaux and Morgan City could be underwater by 2060 to 2090 is very real.
I implore you to start watching, like I have. Watch how the land you live on has changed since you were young. Watch how the people you vote for ignore this. Watch your kids’ and grandkids’ excitement when they catch their first fish or their first crab. Look at how much we would lose if we lost this place.