In the swampy heart of coastal Louisiana, more than a century of abuse and neglect threaten a national treasure: the Atchafalaya Basin, the nation’s largest cypress swamp.
The more than 800,000 acres of forests, lakes and bayous contain hard-to-access wilderness and trees that are over 1,000 years old. Some of the world’s great migratory bird populations stop here on their journey across continents, and its lush swamplands nurture an unparalleled diversity of animal and aquatic life, from threatened species like sturgeon and paddlefish to Louisiana’s world-famous crawfish.
The area also has another abundant resource: oil and gas. Drilling rigs and hundreds of miles of pipelines mark the region, pumping out black gold that has long enriched Atchafalaya landowners. The oil industry has constructed a vast network of canals and “spoil banks,” or excavated piles of earth that rise 10 feet or more and act as earthen dams blocking the natural flow of water that drains south into the Gulf, a problem the oil and gas industry, landowners and state agencies have been reluctant to address.
Scientists say these spoil banks are turning vast areas of the basin into stagnant pools of swamp water that are strangling the cypress forests and damaging the fisheries. Without this natural flow, huge tracts of the Atchafalaya Basin could be left unrecognizable.
Experts say backfilling the canals, or providing more gaps in the spoil banks to let more water flow through, is necessary to make the basin more sustainable. A heated debate is underway between environmentalists and the landowners and oil companies who are resisting efforts to alter the banks — and imperiling the others who rely on the ecosystem.
“What’s going on in the basin is criminal,” says Dean Wilson, head of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, a member organization that aims to protect the swamp. “The landowners don’t want to get rid of the spoil banks that are causing the problem. They want to get rid of the fishermen.”
And there’s another problem that extends beyond the basin: Increasing volumes of sediment and silt from farms and urban runoff are pouring into the Mississippi River upstream and are creating dangerous flooding potential for New Orleans and other communities.
That risk worries veteran marine scientist Ivor van Heerden, who has spent much of his career studying flooding and coastal protection issues in Louisiana and has worked with local environmental groups like the Basinkeeper to study restoration projects along the sediment-choked swamps of the Atchafalaya.
“It’s a ticking time bomb that no one is addressing,” he said.
Change Is Constant
Sediment has built up the Atchafalaya ever since engineers altered and increased the flow of the Mississippi River and the Red River into the region starting in the mid-1800s. The Army Corps of Engineers has been fighting floods ever since historic Mississippi River flooding across 27,000 square miles of the nation’s midsection and South in 1927, the most destructive flood in U.S. history. Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928, which authorized the Corps to construct the largest system of levees and flood control measures in the world.
In the 1960s, the Army Corps built the Old River Control Structure, a huge series of flood control gates that regulates Mississippi River flows into the Atchafalaya River. Located less than 80 miles north of Baton Rouge, the ORCS is the source of the Atchafalaya, which streams south on its 137-mile journey to the Gulf, roughly 130 miles west of the Mississippi River Delta.
Today, depending on flood conditions, a little more than a quarter of the Mississippi River now pours into the Atchafalaya River, making it a critical floodway for southern Louisiana. The Atchafalaya River carries a sediment load of about 88 million tons each year, most all of it from the Mississippi River. The Atchafalaya is the country’s fifth largest river in terms of discharge, and it carries so much sand and sediment that it’s still building land along the Louisiana coast.
Atchafalaya environmental, business and political leaders have complained about growing environmental and flooding threats for decades, but only recently have their complaints attracted statewide attention. In December 2020, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards created a task force to address the long-ignored risks, which have been exacerbated by climate change.
“The basin’s stressors are not only harming water quality and the environment but also threatening the capacity of the basin to carry floodwaters from the Mississippi and the Red Rivers safely and effectively,” Edwards noted when he announced the formation of the task force. “The basin is the nation’s largest river-basin swamp with a rich ecology, and it is past time that it receives more focused attention here in Louisiana and nationally.”
Major floods in 1973 and 2011 nearly overwhelmed the ORCS, which the Army Corps expanded and beefed up with more flood control measures. Hydrologists say the continuing buildup of sediment in the basin threatens its ability to absorb rising Mississippi River floodwaters. That, experts say, could threaten flooding along the Mississippi from the hugely important chemical industry corridor near Baton Rouge all the way to the critically important shipping port of New Orleans.
While Army Corps officials say they are studying the growing problem, members of the state’s Atchafalaya task force say they don’t have time for more studies. Last year the group of nearly two dozen local politicians, scientists, landowners, fishermen and environmentalists met a half-dozen times and came up with a list of general recommendations, despite unexpected obstacles in the form of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and another damaging season of storms.
Those included Hurricane Ida, which hit Louisiana in late August and nearly made a beeline for the Atchafalaya Basin. The Category 4 storm mercifully veered east at the last moment, but it killed more than 25 people across rural areas of the state and destroyed over a hundred square miles of Barataria marshland before it roared northeast, causing dozens more deaths and billions of dollars of damage across the country.
Ida put an exclamation point on the task force’s mission, as scientists say climate change is going to make storms and flooding much worse in coming years. At the end of 2020, the group urged the state to take a more holistic approach to solving the growing environmental problems in the basin, focusing on environmental impacts that usually play second fiddle to navigation and flood control issues. It was the first time a state-sponsored entity called for restoring the north-south flow of swamp water and conserving deep-water habitats essential to the ecological health of the region.
This new approach did not sit well with large landowners worried that increased water flow could give commercial fishermen more access to what they considered their private lands. Meanwhile, environmental groups continued to complain that state and federal agencies were still doing little about monitoring the worsening quality of swamp water bottled up by oil and gas canals and spoil banks.
“The Atchafalaya is a complicated place,” says Brian Lezina, chief of planning for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which sponsored the task force meetings. “Big problems require big solutions. We need more federal money to get things done here.”
A Fishing Industry On The Edge
Commercial fisherman Jody Meche says the risk isn’t just flooding — increased sedimentation and poor water quality could devastate his industry. As president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association West, Meche says he’s watched a steady decline in the fishery since he started crawfishing as a kid with his dad and grandfather. Though the vast majority of Louisiana crawfish are now farm-raised, Meche has witnessed a steady decline in the health of the wild fishery that has sustained his family for generations.
Crawfishing in the basin with his 25-year-old son Bryce last summer, their traps pulled in barely enough to cover gas for the day. Meche is a member of the governor’s task force and says water quality has deteriorated since oil and gas pipeline canals were built, blocking the natural flow of water that nourishes the crawfish in the swampy waters.
“People come here from all over the world to eat our crawfish,” Meche said as he pulled up a trap with a dozen of the giant-clawed crustaceans crawling in the bottom. Years ago, he said, he would pull in 600 pounds of crawfish a day. Now he’s lucky to get half that. Scientists say reduced water flow caused by spoil banks and the buildup of sediment can reduce the level of oxygen crawfish depend on to reproduce and thrive. And as the water quality gets worse, Meche is worried he will have to stop fishing altogether.
“When crawfish are not doing good, everything else is not going good,” said Meche. “They are like canaries in a mine shaft.”
The basin landowners who have profited from its oil and gas operations reject the claim that the industry has wrecked the Atchafalaya. Rudy Sparks, vice president of land for Williams Inc., which holds 85,000 acres of land in the area, blames Army Corps flood control projects and government regulations for upending the natural state of the area.
The company has been active in the area since founder Frank Williams moved to Louisiana in the 1870s and bought up swampland that ultimately became some of the largest logging operations in the nation. Eventually, Sparks says, the oil and gas industry supplanted logging revenue for his company until recent decades, when oil exploration largely moved offshore and local oil drilling operations dropped dramatically.
Sparks says profits from the oil and timber days are largely done. He agrees there have been negative changes in water quality. But unlike some fishermen and environmental groups that blame the oil industry, Sparks says Army Corps projects — primarily designed to address navigation and flooding concerns — are mostly responsible for destroying water flow in the basin.
“It’s a complicated mess. The whole forest and marsh is in severe decline,” Sparks said. “The Army Corps has done more to accelerate the decline of the basin than anyone else.”
Army Corps officials admit there are sedimentation problems in the basin, but say they are studying ways to improve the situation. Jim Lewis, director of the Army Corps’ Mississippi River Science and Technology Office, has extensive experience studying the impacts of sediment in the Atchafalaya Basin. Lewis published a 2018 report that showed over the next 50 years, sedimentation in the Atchafalaya River could boost water levels by 3 feet over levels recorded in the 2011 flood event. That flood forced the Army Corps to open part of the emergency Morganza Spillway for just the second time, releasing a deluge of water from the Mississippi River that threatened Atchafalaya communities downstream.
Lewis says the Atchafalaya is facing twin dangers from climate change: rising waters in the Gulf of Mexico and higher Mississippi River flows coming from the north. The Corps has not evaluated how miles of oil canals and spoil banks in the basin have impacted water quality, but Lewis says they “want to learn more.”
Some scientists say there is good reason to believe that a nightmare could come true. Louisiana State University professor and hydrology expert Yi-Jun Xu has studied sediment flows in the region over the past two decades, and warns that growing levels of sediment are raising river water to dangerous levels and dramatically reducing the basin’s ability to absorb floodwater.
Xu says his main concern is a potential disaster at the ORCS, which he believes is the weakest point in the Corps’ elaborate thousand-mile flood control system. If it were ever overtopped and significantly damaged, Xu thinks the Mississippi River could take a shorter course straight down the Atchafalaya River to the Gulf, cutting off the flow of Mississippi River water to petrochemical plants and communities all the way to New Orleans that depend on it for their survival.
A 1980 paper from LSU engineering professor Raphael Kazmann and economics professor David Johnson examined the consequences of the failure of that structure and estimated it would cause up to $4 billion in damages in 1977 dollars, likely a huge underestimate since the study did not take into account the costs of rebuilding drinking water infrastructure, as well as the relocation of residents impacted by the potential disaster.
The authors said it’s not a question of if, but when. “Just when this will occur cannot be predicted: It could happen next year, during the next decade, sometime in the next 30 or 40 years,” they wrote in 1980. “But the final outcome is simply a matter of time and it is only prudent to prepare for it.”
Help From Congress, At Last?
In January, Congress at last stepped up to the plate, authorizing $2.7 billion for Louisiana’s coastal restoration and flood protection projects as part of federal hurricane relief and infrastructure bills. State officials say they plan to direct at least $78 million to basin flooding and water quality projects. But many locals say the state needs to kick in more of its own money too. Currently, Louisiana does not include the Atchafalaya Basin in its $50 billion coastal restoration plan, and it spends only about $6 million a year on projects in the region. Environmentalists and landowners alike say that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed to protect the natural resources of the area.
But the Basinkeeper group argues more money won’t solve the problem if changes aren’t made in how it’s spent. Wilson’s small organization has played an outsize role in alerting the world to destructive environmental activities in Louisiana’s secretive swamplands. He’s taken on powers big and small, including Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe’s over their purchase of commercial mulch logged from thousands of acres of majestic cypress forests, a practice that Wilson played a role in stopping a decade ago. He says state funding for basin flood control projects has been detrimental to the environment and has benefited special interest groups like landowners and the oil industry.
In recent years, Wilson has taken on the region’s largest landowners and fossil fuel companies, as well as state agencies and the Army Corps, which he also blames for much of the environmental decline in the region. The Basinkeeper has worked closely with environmental lawyers to fight construction of massive natural gas pipelines and pry information out of agency files that can shine a light on the degradation of the basin. In 2018, the Basinkeeper filed suit in an unsuccessful effort to stop the controversial Bayou Bridge oil pipeline that now cuts through the Atchafalaya swamp, pumping up to hundreds of thousands of barrels of Texas crude daily to Louisiana refineries. Currently, with the help of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, the Basinkeeper is suing the Army Corps under the Freedom of Information Act to unearth data related to water quality issues.
Wilson is especially upset his organization was not included on the Atchafalaya task force, though he supports its recommendations to focus on environmental issues. But in the end, he worries little will be done to improve water quality. His group has complained about flood control projects sponsored by the Army Corps, including a levee in the basin’s Coon Trap area that failed last year and he says allowed a significant amount of silt-laden river water to pour into the swamps.
The Basinkeeper is also critical of another major environmental organization active in the region, The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation NGO with $1.2 billion in total revenue and support in 2020. The nonprofit operates a 5,300-acre preserve in the Atchafalaya and is studying ways to improve water quality and the environment in the region. Earlier this month, the group made public that it had purchased an additional 3,700 acres from Dow Chemical Co. to boost its conservation program in the area. The Conservancy has received support for its basin work from a variety of nonprofit, state and corporate funders, including a $1.6 million grant from Shell Pipeline Co. and financial support from Enterprise Products, a gas pipeline operator in the basin.
Conservancy officials say a major focus is improving water flow in the East Grand Lake area, which has suffered from increased sedimentation and water quality problems over the years. The project has been opposed by environmentalists, local residents and fishermen who worry it will result in the introduction of more silt- and sediment-laden water into the swamps that can add more land, which is generally supported by landowners and oil and gas industry interests.
The Conservancy’s scientists push back on this criticism, saying they are actively monitoring the area to improve the environment. Bryan Piazza, the Conservancy’s director of freshwater and marine science in Louisiana, says the group is working as an “honest broker” with all Atchafalaya interests to improve water quality in the region despite opposition from fishermen and the Basinkeeper. “If we can get the water flowing again it will benefit everyone,” Piazza said. The controversial East Grand Lake project was paused by the state over the past year, but officials say they are now working with the Army Corps to get a permit approved.
The Conservancy’s state director, Karen Gautreaux, who sits on the governor’s task force and formerly worked for the state, agrees water quality is a growing problem in the basin. She argues that working with other interests, including the oil and gas industry, is key to finding solutions to complex environmental issues. “Being a conservationist and a landowner are not mutually exclusive,” she said.
But Wilson and fishermen like Meche who have lived and worked in the Atchafalaya for decades, argue that projects like East Grand Lake are working against the best interests of the swamp. Van Heerden, the scientist who has worked with the Basinkeeper, says his analysis shows the proposed project on Conservancy land will end up “making things worse.” And in Wilson’s view, the oil industry and landowners are getting what they want.
“They are just filling in the swamp,” said Wilson.
While virtually everyone agrees that water quality is a problem in the Atchafalaya, major landowners like Williams Inc.’s Sparks are “uncomfortable” with state task force recommendations they say would create deeper water flow in some areas and promote public fishing access to their private lands, something fishing groups deny. But Sparks says if nothing is done to fight increasing sedimentation in the basin, river bottoms and water levels will keep rising, including in the grandest river of all, the Mississippi.
Many experts agree the Mississippi River is overdue to change course, as it has naturally done over eons of time. Scientists say no matter what we do to try to contain the Mississippi, it will always fight to change its path as sediment builds up. The great nonfiction writer John McPhee, who wrote extensively about the region, described the Mississippi River’s changing history as “a pianist playing with one hand — frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in new directions.”
What concerns Xu and others even more is that climate change and growing sedimentation of the riverbeds is creating a perfect storm that will be hard to stop. Xu worries that a major hurricane the size of Hurricane Katrina or Harvey will hit the Mississippi area northwest of New Orleans.
That, he says, could dislodge a 500 million-ton slug of built-up river sediment, creating floodwaters that could overwhelm the ORCS. That would allow the river to seek a path down the Atchafalaya, destroying towns, levees and swamplands in its raging rampage to the Gulf. “We are underestimating the seriousness of the situation,” Xu says. “Many people in the Corps are engineers who think an engineering approach can keep this from happening … but we can’t fight that massive amount of sediment moving in such a short period of time.”
Army Corps experts disagree with these dire predictions. While they acknowledge that climate change is driving increased rainfall and more powerful storms in the area, they say there have been major improvements made in the ORCS and the levee system since it was significantly damaged in a major 1973 flood. The Corps continues to closely monitor and model flooding emergencies in the region, and officials are confident they can handle whatever threats Mother Nature throws at them.
A New Reality
John Day, an LSU emeritus professor of marine sciences, says it’s likely the Mississippi will change course, though he’s not sure where. Both Day and other scientists say it’s time to transition our thinking from restoring nature to adapting to it, which will require protecting certain communities over others.
“We need to protect the infrastructure of our fisheries,” said Day.
That’s something many people in the Atchafalaya Basin would support. Henderson Mayor Sherbin Collette grew up in a family of fishermen. He’s been mayor of Henderson for 17 years and has helped make the small town prosperous as the “Gateway to the Atchafalaya,” which features a dinosaur park and casino that attracts visitors off busy I-10. More theme parks are being planned, and the town’s bank account is $3 million in the green, the mayor says. But he worries that may not last for long as the threat of flooding increases.
“I remember when the Atchafalaya Basin was a gem,” he said. “Now it’s full of stagnant water and stinks to high heaven. … They ruined the basin because of oil.”
But it’s the increasing storms and hurricanes that worry him the most. Collette says Henderson has been lucky over the past few years, but that luck won’t always hold. “Two-thirds of the U.S. drains down here,” he said. “If you think it’s bad now, just wait.”
One of the ironies of the Atchafalaya Basin is that some people who live near the delta on the Gulf may be more secure from flooding than others who live farther away from the coast. That’s because the sediment-laden Atchafalaya River is building land in the delta, which is growing about a square mile per year on average.
LSU’s Robert Twilley, a veteran coastal researcher and the longtime director of the Louisiana Sea Grant program until last year, has spent much of his career researching the coastal zone of the Atchafalaya Basin. He says the delta is of special interest to researchers around the world because it’s building land in the face of rising seas, which Twilley expects to continue for decades barring a catastrophic flooding event.
Eventually, though, rising seas will overcome the sedimentation effects of the river. At that point, he said, “all bets are off.”
But if the Mississippi River ever does change course down the Atchafalaya, even sea level rise would be no match for Old Man River, Twilley said. “It would make one hell of a delta.”
Funding for this story was provided by the Society of Environmental Journalists Rapid Response Grants, which included support from the Hewlett Foundation, the Bullitt Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.