Louisiana is disappearing. Since 1932, the Gulf of Mexico has swallowed 2,300 square miles of the state’s wetlands, an area larger than Delaware. If no action is taken, the missing Delaware will become a missing Connecticut, and then a missing Vermont. The loss of the marshes has catastrophic implications, because they are the state’s first, and strongest, defense against hurricanes.
Two culprits are responsible for most of the destruction. The first is the Army Corps of Engineers, which over the past 130 years has built many of the levees that pin the modern Mississippi River in place to prevent flooding. Without a restrained river, Louisiana would be unsuitable for human civilization. But it was the flooding that built and sustained much of the southern part of the state in the first place. For millennia, whenever a breach opened in the riverbank, muddy water rushed through, depositing alluvium that solidified into land. When one crevasse plugged with mud, the river opened breaches elsewhere. Since the Mississippi has been hemmed in, most of its sediment, instead of replenishing the wetlands, discharges straight into the Gulf of Mexico and disappears off the continental shelf.
The other major destructive force in the region is the fossil fuel industry. One-quarter of the nation’s energy supply passes through southern Louisiana, and much of its infrastructure lies in Plaquemines Parish. Over the last century, energy companies have dredged thousands of miles of canals for tanker ships and pipelines. The canals score the marsh, a defacement plainly visible from the window of an airplane flying above. They are like straws sucking in saltwater from the Gulf, eroding the fragile root systems that hold the wetlands together like woven thread. As the Earth warms, and sea levels rise, more saltwater intrudes, accelerating the deterioration.