For a few weeks I have been organizing a trip out to the Wax Lake Delta. I’ve been busy sending out invitations, collecting RSVP’s, securing boats, speakers and guides, and educating myself on the area’s history, geology and ecology. Finally, yesterday was the culmination of all that work.
I will admit something to you- before yesterday, I had not yet been to the Wax Lake Delta. Several people said things to me along the way like, “it’s a really special place”, “it’s magical”, and, “I can’t really describe it, you have to see it”.
Well, yesterday I saw it. It was indeed really special. In the wake of the coastal crisis facing the state of Louisiana, the Wax Lake Delta is to be beholden as a real gem. It is one of the few prograding deltas in the world, and is therefore studied extensively. It’s also an accident.
The Wax Lake cut was dredged in the early 1940s to relieve flooding in nearby Morgan City. Several decades later, it has built a beautiful delta. The Wax Lake cut mimics a natural river distributary to deliver freshwater and sediment to the Gulf of Mexico. It has been left relatively unaltered since the cut was dredged, leaving the river to do its job.
I and those who attended followed the journey of sediment: down the Wax Lake cut to some of the older islands and more established marsh. There we saw prime duck habitat, bass rich waters, and storm buffering solid ground. From there we travelled further out, and visited some of the newest land in Louisiana. Mudflats just emerging from the water. We talked about how these islands were formed, and what we can learn from the Wax cut to be applied to proposed river diversion on the lower Mississippi.
But, here are the most important points I took away:
Effects of diversions on fisheries is getting a lot of attention. As it should be- science should be informing as many of our decisions as possible. We should not write off any effect or consequence of our actions as unimportant or not worthy of study. Any data that we have access to should be used to inform our decisions.
However, one important fact about fisheries ecology often gets left out of the discussion. Many fish and invertebrate species need estuaries and low salinity refuges from predators for the early stages of their life cycles. There has been lots of discussion about what salinity changes will do to adult organisms, but we have lost sight of what losing the estuary would mean for juveniles. What does the future of fisheries look like without river diversions? There is plenty of (and increasing) saltwater habitat along the coast. What is threatened and dwindling is the fresher marsh and estuary that freshwater species need and many marine species utilize at parts of their life cycle.
The second sticking point is this diversion has be building land continuously for decades. When the CPRA says “we cannot dredge our way out of this problem”, it’s because the second you finish dredging, it begins eroding away. Then, to restore it you have to pay all over again. For example, some of the barrier islands we have payed to restore may only have 10-15 years left until they are washed out to the Gulf, and even fewer with a few big storms. Within that time period, and sediment diversion could have been working to replenish the area with sediment. This is why the CPRA has included all different types of restoration projects in the Coastal Master Plan, and is studying how they can work together to maximize results.
Several quotable moments emerged from the discussions yesterday, but the most poignant for me was said by Paul Kemp: It’s really hard to have a delta without a river. Everyone chuckled when he said it because it was so simply true.