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Uncharted Waters 

As Louisiana's coast sinks and washes into the Gulf, families who live on the state's edge share a precarious future with waterfowl in search of shrinking habitat.

Forty minutes from downtown New Orleans, fisherman Philip Moinez stands calmly near the epicenter of the same whirling fate that awaits hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians before the end of this century. Motoring his crab boat through a light mist down Bayou Terre Aux Boeufs in the rapidly disappearing marshlands of St. Bernard Parish, Moinez says he wouldn't live anywhere else, despite the current pace of coastal erosion.

Moinez faced hard times after Katrina, and things only got worse when competition from overseas imports brought seafood prices down, but every time he considered relocating and getting a day job, the waters of St. Bernard always beckon him home.

"Everybody I know works eight to 10 hours a day to earn their $40,000 [weekend] boat. I come out here anytime I want," Moinez says.

One look at the serene landscape from the Moinez family's hurricane-ravaged waterfront property makes it easy to understand the allure of their world — and its tenuous hold on the future. With his broad set of survival skills, handed down through several generations, Moinez seems untroubled by the life-changing forces that surround him and by the fact that conditions aren't expected to improve soon. Like many other residents of this coastal ecosystem, Moinez hangs on to his roots and survives against the odds.

But what will happen to Moinez and other coastal inhabitants if current atmosphere-ocean models turn out to be correct? In the next 50 to 100 years, the warming of oceans and the melting of polar ice sheets are expected to accelerate the rate of sea-level rise — due at least in part to human-induced global warming. Climate changes anticipated in south Louisiana include warmer temperatures, more precipitation and increased storm intensity. Any or all of those changes will deal an exceptionally strong blow to Louisiana's deltaic coast, where organic, sinking soils and weakened infrastructure will exacerbate the impacts of global warming, swamping the state's southeastern coast and its residents.

Two years after the cataclysmic 2005 storms, "things are still falling apart," says one geomorphologist. Already, Louisiana has become an international model for examining the strategies that people, plants and waterfowl use to cope with accelerated rises in sea levels. It's not an enviable distinction: 1,800 people lost their lives to Katrina and hundreds of thousands remain displaced. Sea-level rise and salt-water intrusion will inflict further changes upon plant and animal communities, as evidenced by long-term waterfowl studies and the aftermath of Katrina.

St. Bernard, like other coastal parishes in southeast Louisiana, is the critical edge of an alluring yet vanishing landscape. Parish elders attest to how little remains of what was once a plush, vibrant coastal marsh. They compare vast stretches of open water to what they used to see there: forests and prairie lands thick with mink and muskrat a mere 50 years ago.

From 1932-2000, an area the size of Delaware — roughly 1,900 square miles of coastal land in Louisiana alone — has turned to water. Solid ground continues to morph into open water at an alarming rate.

Not long before Katrina, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) predicted doom for the coast and for New Orleans before the end of this century, based on rapid rates of land loss, saltwater intrusion, rising sea levels and subsidence (sinking land). A 2001 news release from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) cites the USGS prediction and concludes, "The future of New Orleans appears bleak. By the year 2100 the city of New Orleans may be extinct, submerged in water."

Dr. Denise Reed is a geomorphologist and professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of New Orleans. Her extensive research into coastal conditions helped support NASA's 2001 report. Eight years later, Reed remains optimistic about southeast Louisiana's ability to survive, despite continuing annual erosion and the shocking 270 square miles of land lost all at once during Katrina.

"Estuaries should always be changing," Reed says. "The trouble is that in the past 50 years, it's all changed the same way. It's all changed to water."

Reed predicts that the fight to save coastal Louisiana will be a long one. She believes that what Louisiana needs is a "surge" of sediment and money. "Since 2001, a lot of good work has been done and is in the pipeline for Barataria. But large-scale restoration? We're still nowhere close to that. We haven't really done anything to the system to change it.

For hundreds of years, humans have struggled to contain the Mississippi River within the walls of earthen levees. This has saved homes, crops and businesses from inundation. It has prevented residents from drowning and given rise to billions in investment and commerce. But, while preserving our own interests, we have inadvertently starved the barrier islands and wetlands of life-giving nutrients and building materials that would otherwise be widely distributed by the river's sediment-rich waters during the natural cycle of annual flooding.

A walled river travels fast and certain on an inflexible course. The Mississippi thus pushes untold tons of sediment into the abyss of deep Gulf waters rather than distributing them along its banks and across southeast Louisiana's now-starving coast. Rising and warming Gulf waters, attributed to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere, put even more water on top of the soft, compacting coastal terrain. In addition to those pressures, 20,000 miles of oil and gas canals, plus navigation channels such as the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO or 'Mister Go"), have been carved into coastal marshes. These passages often pour saltwater into what was once freshwater or brackish marshlands. High-salinity waters displace or kill freshwater aquatic life and other salt-sensitive vegetation, such as cypress trees, which otherwise hold soils in place, and thereby accelerate the pace of land loss.

Reed says it's time we learned from our mistakes. "We didn't understand the consequences of what we were doing back then; now we do. Now there's no excuse." She adds that while planners are making progress, Louisiana has not yet found a 21st century way to manage the bottom end of the mighty river.

While some are appalled by the marriage of levee maintenance to coastal restoration under the state's new master plan for restoring Louisiana's coast, Reed believes this union is a step in the right direction.

"Under the Coastal Wetlands Restoration Plan, we've tied restoration and planning together. That's a good thing. I wish we had tied navigation there, too. We're still not in a position to look at the river and the landscape together in a holistic manner," she says.

A few minutes from the launch on Bayou Terre Aux Boeufs, Moinez's boat enters the throes of Louisiana's rich waterfowl habitat. Pelicans contentedly bob on the water; great heron stalk alone at the marsh's edge; a falcon trails the boat hoping it will stir some form of prey into the air. Suddenly, the sun catches the white-feathered bellies of gray ducks, or gadwalls, as they turn skyward from the boat. The rumbling motor stirs hundreds, maybe thousands of white-billed coots, which pepper the air after they run — literally — across the water in their characteristically clumsy attempt to take flight.

"Don't bring those poule d'eaux home to your grandma," Moinez says. 'They stink."

Poule d'eaux (pronounced PULL-doo) is the south Louisiana term for coot, the small, slate-colored migratory waterfowl. Poule d'eaux (literally, the term is French for "water chicken," so named for the coot's chicken-like feet, as opposed to a duck's webbed feet) are among the more prevalent species found in coastal Louisiana during the winter migration.

While the coot population remains strong in Louisiana, other waterfowl numbers are dwindling. According to Larry Reynolds, the North American waterfowl management plan coordinator for Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, coastal erosion is not the worst thing that ever happened to ducks. In fact, Reynolds says they like a slightly degraded habitat. Scientists, however, are now linking changes in waterfowl populations and migration patterns to warming temperatures.

'In waterfowl management right now, we're not really taking global warming into consideration," says Reynolds. 'We are seeing things that indicate something big is happening. The birds are moving north. We are seeing fewer and fewer mallards, more and more whistling ducks. The mallards are not wintering here in Louisiana in the same numbers they used to 15 years ago. We've got long-term survey data to prove that. It's part of some large-scale environmental trend."

Melanie Driscoll, director of the Bird Resource Center at LSU, says a warming climate undoubtedly threatens many bird populations, directly and indirectly. According to the center, rising sea levels (from global warming) will inundate critically important coastal wetlands and barrier islands. And the birds, along with humans and other members of the coastal ecosystem, share the same fate.

Driscoll's charge is to collect and assess data regarding bird populations and to make policy recommendations based on her research. Her work includes helping to identify threatened bird habitat, called Important Bird Areas in Louisiana. One of the five sites she has identified as 'critical" includes 20,000 acres near the mouth of the Mississippi River on the East Bank of Plaquemines Parish.

Mottled ducks — a large, brownish duck that looks a lot like a mallard hen — are one of Driscoll's priorities. The birds live year-round within a limited range in the marshes and prairies along the disappearing coast. "In Louisiana, mottled ducks are showing an overall strong population decline due to wetland decline," Driscoll says. She adds that because of the ducks' limited range, any coastal loss because of global warming will reduce the number of mottled ducks. "They've been red-listed by Audubon. If we don't do something soon, they'll be headed toward extinction," Driscoll says.

Ducks that migrate through or winter in Louisiana from breeding grounds in northern states are also under stress. The northern "prairie potholes" where many ducks breed have been listed in critical condition because of droughts associated with climate change.

In addition to the loss of breeding habitat, rising global temperatures have put other stresses on American waterfowl. Many species are remaining in, or wintering in, more northern climates and competing for food with the local bird populations. Some even hybridize, effectively changing the species.

"Global climate change is going to affect waterfowl whether it's happening here or not," Driscoll says.

Duck hunting remains a popular sport in south Louisiana despite massive changes to the coast and the climate. Along his daily route this time of year, Moinez passes several camouflaged duck hunters hiding in their grassy blinds. Like the falcons, hunters are glad to see Moinez's boat stirring up the ducks. Moinez says he's already hunted enough waterfowl to fill his grandmother's freezer but, though they may be good eating, ducks don't bring in the bucks.

Mike Benge, an eco-sensitive duck hunter and the chairman of the New Orleans chapter of Ducks Unlimited (DU), says that's not exactly the case. "Ducks Unlimited raises grass-roots dollars, and lots of them," says Benge. DU is a national organization of duck hunters that attracts thousands of members and, indeed, raises millions of dollars for habitat reclamation and conservation. The organization has pledged $15 million to restore Katrina-related damage to crucial wintering and migration habitat.

DU has become a conduit for federal money and matching grants, which are invested in breeding grounds and habitat conservation. In 2006, Louisiana DU raised more than $1.8 million among 83 active chapters, with most of that money slated for restoration and conservation of duck breeding grounds. According to DU, 70 percent of the funds raised will be applied to breeding grounds in Canada, the Dakotas, Montana and Missouri " where the majority of ducks that fly south to Louisiana to breed.

DU's International Conservation Plan identifies the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas as one of five highest-priority regions. Some 9.2 million ducks use Louisiana coastal habitats each year, including substantial proportions of the continental populations of gadwalls, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, northern pintails, lesser scaup and mottled ducks. The group's goal is to provide migration and winter habitat to support 13.7 million ducks in Louisiana and Texas.

"From 1937, our primary mission has been to fill the sky with ducks, so we can hunt them," says Benge.

The idea of nurturing life so that one can take it may seem cruel, but DWF's Reynolds says hunters do not pose a threat to the ducks. In fact, he says, DU is doing important work.

"There is an extremely poor linkage between hunting mortality and waterfowl population. There is a strong link between wetlands and breeding grounds and the duck population," says Reynolds. 'The number of ducks that hunters kill is around 10 percent of the ducks; 90 percent are unaffected by hunting. But if there's prairie drought that reduces wetland habitat and grassland up north, that affects all of those birds."

Reynolds adds that the habitat that hunters in DU provide for waterfowl remains protected the whole year around, not just during hunting season.

Benge's work is not limited to his volunteer efforts with DU. He's also the co-owner of the Delacroix Corporation, one of southeast Louisiana's largest coastal landowners. Benge is the sixth generation of his family to work for the company. His investment in the coast and its fate is in his blood and in his company's land. His wealth of experience and expertise in coastal issues — and his knowledge of the state's regulatory system — has taught him how difficult coastal restoration can be.

"You would not believe the red tape, the cost involved and the number of hoops we have to jump through to save America's wetland," says Benge.

In addition to snail-paced bureaucracies, Benge says that stagnant plans to restore the coast are largely due to "dueling agencies," "dueling factions within agencies" and "competing interest groups."

Garret Graves is Gov. Bobby Jindal's new director of coastal affairs and the new chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), which oversees Louisiana's coastal restoration plans and flood-control operations. His position also makes him the main liaison between the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Graves says Jindal has made it clear to him that he wants 'the state protected and the coast restored."

"I'd suggest that anyone that becomes an obstacle to those goals start surfing on Monster.com or Careerbuilder," says Graves.

Graves believes that properly designed and targeted sediment diversions can address the multi-faceted problems of erosion, subsidence and sea level rise. As for global warming, Graves says, "We need to be proactive in our solution, and this threat is being incorporated into project models. The quandary here is that models project sea level rise anywhere from a few inches to 100 feet. Which one should we plan for?"

Despite uncertainties, Graves says his staff is working to identify "feasible" projects in the master plan and to "issue construction contracts."

"The longer we wait, the more we will have to totally redesign projects and take additional land loss into consideration," he says.

Graves says priorities for the Jindal administration include bringing sediment to the most critical edges of southeastern Louisiana — St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes as well as the Barataria-Terrebonne Basin. "We have projects that are ready to go," says Graves.

It remains to be seen if Graves' pronouncements ever reach Moinez's property and the marshes that still embrace it.

Heading home from a day in the marsh, Moinez steers his boat between two islands still littered with storm trash two years after Katrina. He stares out on the pieces that can't be collected: trolling nets wildly mangled in the trees, cypress framing from nearby camps, sheets of metal roofing, a truck-trailer and the helm of a boat all stuck in the deep mud.

"I didn't get upset until I got down here after the storm and saw my grandparents' house was gone," he says. "I'm young, they're old."

Moinez's grandparents, descendents of Isleños or Canary Islanders (the original settlers of lower St. Bernard Parish), are the bloodline of generations who have lived and worked the land on Delacroix Island. They're holding insurance policies that won't pay off hurricane claims, and they don't qualify for the government assistance they need to cover the high cost of rebuilding and raising their home 18 feet above sea level, as is now required by law.

The stress weighs heavily on Moinez's grandmother. She is anxious to have a big kitchen again so she can get back to cooking for the family. His grandfather agrees with Moinez that this family couldn't stand to live anywhere else. "If you get another bad storm," he says laughing, "You just run. Que serÁ serÁ!"

Like his grandfather, Moinez can point to what was once a vast land of solid hunting and trapping grounds that have since turned to open water. But he doesn't seem deterred by the environmental changes or the impending doom that scientists predict for his homeland. Together, his family stands its ground while casting its net into uncharted waters.

click to enlarge Fisherman Philip Moinez drives his crab boat through Bayou Terre Aux Boeufs in St. Bernard Parish. - MONIQUE VEERDIN
  • Monique Veerdin
  • Fisherman Philip Moinez drives his crab boat through Bayou Terre Aux Boeufs in St. Bernard Parish.
click to enlarge Only about 10 percent of ducks are affected by hunting. On the other hand, all ducks are affected by reductions in wetlands and grasslands. - MONIQUE VEERDIN
  • Monique Veerdin
  • Only about 10 percent of ducks are affected by hunting. On the other hand, all ducks are affected by reductions in wetlands and grasslands.
click to enlarge Duck hunters steer their boat through a bayou in St. Bernard. - MONIQUE VEERDIN
  • Monique Veerdin
  • Duck hunters steer their boat through a bayou in St. Bernard.
click to enlarge What once was Louisiana marsh land is now mostly open water. About 9.2 million ducks use Louisiana coastal habitats each year. - MONIQUE VEERDIN
  • Monique Veerdin
  • What once was Louisiana marsh land is now mostly open water. About 9.2 million ducks use Louisiana coastal habitats each year.
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