The poor Gulf Coast.
So abused, so neglected, so forgotten.
The oil spill currently afflicting the Louisiana coast has received a great deal of attention. This media focus happens all too rarely in such an important part of the nation.
The Gulf Coast is one of the most beautiful and ecologically rich areas of the United States. A tremendous amount of our seafood intake comes from the region. Shrimp, crayfish, and oysters breed in the swamps’ brackish waters. These animals have fed Gulf residents for millennia and make up a significant part of our seafood diet today.
The marshes also serve a vital role for birds. Not only do many species breed in the swamps, the marshes are the first stop for exhausted birds migrating over the Gulf of Mexico from Latin America.
The coastal swamps are home to the nation’s only populations of American alligators and other reptilian species. While conservation programs have helped alligator populations recover since the 1960s, decreased and degraded habitat places their long-term future in question.
The bayous have an important human history as well. French Catholics fled to Louisiana in the 1760s after the British takeover of Canada. Living and working in the isolated bayous for over two centuries, the Cajuns created their own musical and food traditions, their own version of French, and a vibrant culture that have fascinated Americans past and present.
Mike Tidwell’s superb 2003 book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast lays out the damage we have done to this fragile ecosystem and social system. For decades, we have ignored, drained, starved, industrialized, and destroyed this vital habitat of American ecology and society.
In order to contain flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has constructed levees to keep the rivers in its banks. The floods provided sediment that recharged and expanded the marshlands. Today, all of that sediment washes out to sea.
To improve transportation, the oil industry cut shipping channels through the bayous. The engineers did not know that once created, the canals would eat away at the marshes, created huge expanses of salt water in the former marshes.
Without the nourishing sediment and with the canals, the bayous are melting away. Each day, we lose 25 acres of land. Southern Louisiana is in danger of disappearing. The ocean eats away at the marshes every day the sediment does not replenish them. Entire towns have fallen victim to oceanic erosion.
When the bayous go, the wildlife disappears as well. That includes the shrimp, crayfish, and oysters that make up Louisiana cooking and much of the state’s economy. Within decades, the bayous, which have nurtured Native Americans and Cajuns for centuries, may disappear.
To date, the greatest manifestation of this environmental damage came in the form of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. These coastal marshes provided a buffer zone for New Orleans. Hurricanes hit the marshes and lost their power in the fifty miles between the open water and New Orleans. Without those wetlands and their ability to both soak up water and weaken storms, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast at full force, devastating the area and causing the levee breaches that drowned New Orleans.
Now we have the oil spill. This disaster will exacerbate the region’s problems. It will devastate the fishing industry. It could kill millions of birds, some of which are endangered species. Spring is the migration and breeding season and thus the spill’s damage to birds will be more far-reaching than if it happened in December.
But perhaps we can find a silver lining in this catastrophe. American reliance on oil imports means that we can remain ignorant about drilling’s effects. Not since the Santa Barbara, California oil spill of 1969 has a major spill affected the Lower 48 states. That previous incident helped shape the environmental movement that created the first Earth Day in 1970 and a tremendous amount of legislation during the next decade which cleaned up our rivers, air, and soil, placed industries under new regulations, and led to the recovery of many endangered species.
Moreover, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska turned much of the American public against oil drilling in our most beautiful places. Memories of this event and the millions of dead birds, seals, and fish made it impossible for George W. Bush to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. Yet none of this has dampened Americans’ zeal for consuming foreign oil, where we can’t see the consequences.
Perhaps then it is better that the oil spill happened in the United States instead of Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela. A giant spill and subsequent environmental disaster means nothing to most Americans if it happens far away. The oil industry has created ecological and human catastrophes across the world for a century. But we keep driving our vehicles, oblivious to our impact upon the world. Seeing that damage in the form of oil-covered herons and alligators may create a moment for serious reflection of our actions.
Hopefully, the oil spill will make President Obama rethink his decision to open up parts of the Atlantic Coast to oil exploration. Although elected on a clean energy platform, Obama’s energy policy has in fact favored development. He has not shown a real commitment to clean energy in the form of legislation or executive policy. I call for President Obama to use this tragedy as inspiration both for a comprehensive energy bill and for renewed environmentalism at the federal level with far-reaching legislation rivaling that signed by Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Carter.
Realistically, the marshes’ disappearance may prove easier to solve than the oil spill’s long-term implications. We can recreate the marshes by removing the levees and allowing the sediment to replenish the land. Scientists have successfully done this in small regions and almost immediately the alligators, fish, and birds return. But weaning the nation off oil is a fantastically difficult task. And no matter how rigorous the regulations, oil spills will happen.
As long we mine the waters off the Gulf Coast for oil, the bayous and all the people and wildlife that rely on them remain in peril. So long as we remain reliant upon oil, versions of the Exxon Valdez and the Gulf Coast spill of 2010 will happen somewhere around the world almost every year.