Original Content at http://www.opednews.com/articles/The-Voice-of-the-Wetlands-by-Mac-McKinney-081021-30.html
October 21, 2008
Voice of the Wetlands Festival 2008, Part 1: Mr Bill and the Gulf Restoration Network
By Mac McKinney
We are in Houma, Louisiana, Terrebonne Parish
I just travelled to the fifth annual Voice of the Wetlands Festival in Houma, Louisiana on October 10 thru 12, and let me tell you, it was quite an experience. The purpose of this annual festival is two-fold, to put on one Hell of a Southern/Cajun music festival, and to raise awareness of the plight of the wetlands in the five Gulf Coast states, focusing particularly on Louisiana. At a certain point the two goals merge, because music and art, as Tab Benoit points out, speak truth to the heart, and the truth of this festival is that the wetlands must be restored, or we will all pay dearly for their loss as millions of people are slowly displaced and precious resources, landmarks and cultures disappear. We have already experienced the first shocks with Katrina and Rita in 2005, and most recently with Gustav and Ike, and there are many more hurricanes to come. Meanwhile, Nature's own defense against hurricanes, the wetlands, are disappearing at a frightening rate. This trend must be reversed, and rapidly.
Houma itself lies in Terrebonne Parish, which, along with Lafourche Parish, suffered considerable flooding and other storm damage from Hurricane Gustav and Ike back in September, so much so that Tab Benoit, president of Voice of the Wetlands, said that they weren't sure they could even put the festival on until the last minute. Two local levees had actually given way, sending Gulf waters roaring into coastal towns, so it was questionable whether Terrebonne would recover in time to make the festival even feasible.
Two local levees were breached in southern Louisiana during Hurricane Ike. (A photo sent to me from lower Lafourche Parish during Hurricane Ike, shot by Tab Benoit's manager.)
Flying to New Orleans early on Friday the 10th with my wife, and after returning for several hours to the Lower Ninth Ward as well as other areas of the Big Easy for an update on conditions (which I will write about later), we drove through the backwater side of New Orleans, moving southwest, on down toward Houma. As we reached Terrebonne Parish I began to see large piles of debris that had been gathered up and stacked near houses and businesses situated just off the highways I was driving along, a sober reminder of what had just happened a few weeks earlier. Finally, after a few wrong turns and retracing a few roads, we reached my hotel right after dusk.
After tossing our stuff in our room and then my checking my email on the hotel lobby computer, we headed out for the festival before it got too late. After following the hotel clerk's directions a little too literally and then barging into a family restaurant full of customers and a Cajun band to ask for new ones, I was soon able to find the venerable Southdown Plantation, venue for the Voice of the Wetlands Festival.
Fortunately, it was still early enough to be able to catch the last few hours of the opening afternoon/evening activities. A band was just ending its set when we walked onto the grounds, so we wandered over to the large, semi-enclosed public section of the plantation estate, where they had set up, among a multitude of other things, a small stage, several rows of chairs, a big white screen and a sound system. Tab Benoit was in the middle of a short speech on the wetlands, and as we settled in, he finished up and introduced the next speaker, who turned out to be, to my surprise and delight, none other than Walter Williams, creator of that famous pop culture icon, Saturday Night Live's Mr. Bill. Walt actually lives in New Orleans, where he has shared all the terrors and blessings of the last several years, and he does far more than create tragic-masochistic Play-Doh icons, for he is a heavy-duty wetlands activist, stand-up comedian, voluminous film producer, screenplay writer and much, much more. Walt, I might add, is also an occasional contributor to OpEdNews.com.
Tab Benoit and Walter Williams - a slow shutter speed distorted this shot.
Tonight he was lecturing and showing videos about the loss of the wetlands, and what we can do to stop it. And while he was talking, Tab was moving merrily through the audience, handing out one of Walt's latest DVDs, called "Restoring Our Coast – Who Pays". Nice documentary, by the way, with 1) a section on individuals struggling to come to grips with the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans, called "Hard Road Home"; 2) a crack-up humor section where none other than Mr. Bill himself and his faithful dog Spot give us a bevy of public service announcements on and excursions into the wetlands; 3) a lively, very informative section called "New Orleans – the Natural History"; plus 4) a five-minute quick version on saving the wetlands. You, the reader, can actually see all this simply by going to http://www.mrbill.com/. Go ahead and educate yourself, and have some laughs doing so, at the expense of Mr. Bill.
Oh Noo! Mr. Bill
Click here to visit the wetlands with Mr. Bill.
After Walt was through, I wandered over to the food line and bought some fine Cajun cooking, and then crossed the lawn to the well-lit in multi-colors music stage where my wife had already joined the audience. The last set of the night was just starting and the Mike Zito Band was up at bat to start things off. Zito, who has a classic, raspy Blues voice, put on one fine performance. He travelled all the way from Texas, by the way, to do this gig. Meanwhile, the band kept transforming as more and more guitarists kept walking onto the stage, greats like C.C. Adcock, John Lisi, Ronnie Fruge, Joe Stark and Tab Benoit. What the evening was now evolving into was the 5th Annual Guitar Showdown, and what a showdown it was, sending the audience, which was now crowding around the stage, into more and more rapture and abandon as each guitarist tried to one-up the previous one with his own solo, keeping everyone clapping, shouting or dancing right on up until the last note of the evening. Then we went back to the hotel and crashed.
Guitar Showdown: eight guitar players on stage
The next day, Saturday, we got back to Southdown right after the festival reopened at Noon, and spent a good while shuffling between the music stage and the wetlands education area that encompassed, besides last night's stage, various information tables and displays. (I would digress, occasionally, to the awesome Cajun food lines or the beer stand.) Info tables included a nuts and bolts ecological exhibit run by environmental sciences students from Nicholls State University, a campaign table for Senator Mary Landrieu (politicians from both parties were invited), who has been a strong advocate for wetlands restoration, and of particular interest to me, an info table run by the Gulf Restoration Network (http://healthygulf.org/). I hadn't heard of them before, and was quite impressed with what they're all about. I started talking to one of the representatives, Collin Thomas, about the wetlands, and he sounded authoritative enough that I asked him to do an interview for OpEdNews. Here is what he had to say:
Collin Thomas, spokesman for the Gulf Restoration Network
Interview with Collin Thomas, Gulf Restoration Network Spokesman
Mac: I'm down here at the Voice of the Wetlands Festival. There are a lot of environmental groups down here, and I ran into one fellow. What's the name of your organization?
Collin: We're the Gulf Restoration Network.
M: And your name, sir?
C: My name is Collin Thomas.
M: Tell me about your network
C: We're a non-profit organization based out of New Orleans. We've been around for about fifteen years now. We work in all five Gulf States and we're made up of diverse groups, community groups, environmental organizations, as well as individual members.
M: What specifically are you doing here today at the Festival?
C: Well today, we're down here - this is our second year here - working with the Voice of the Wetlands and we're focusing on our Natural Defenses Campaign, which is partly public education to raise awareness about losing a football field worth of wetlands every 45 minutes due to coastal erosion and what we can do to mitigate this impact, which also involves putting pressure on congressional and state legislatures to make coastal restoration a priority issue.
M: How much is the loss of the wetlands a man-made problem?
C: Well, a lot of it is attributed to men. Some of the actions of the Army Corps of Engineers, with the diversion of the Mississippi from its original floodplain, the (indiscernible) river diversions, and they have a couple of (indiscernible) projects going on right now, so we need it (wetlands awareness) on a large scale, especially down here in the Terrebonne Parish area.
M: By the way, how badly was Terrebonne (Parish) hit by Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Gustav?
C: Well, from what I've heard from the Voice of the Wetlands website, Gustav pretty much came right up their alley and did a lot of flooding, and even Ike, even though it just passed by down there, did a tremendous amount of flooding from just the rains and there's a lot of wind damage. And wetlands are tremendously important in mitigating these attacks, because for every three to four miles they have, it scoops up to an entire foot of storm surge.
M: I heard Tab Benoit say last night that there was a ten foot surge, and that's happened in the past, but never with the consequences with Ike.
C: Perhaps, I'm not actually sure about what he said - my first day here - but I'm sure, he lives in the area and he's familiar with the issues.
M: OK, I also heard that several levees gave way, not Federal levees, but local levees.
C: That very well could be the case. I haven't heard anything about that specifically, but I know there was damage caused by the storm.
M: What part do the oil companies play in this problem?
C: Well, right now there's a lot of canals they're not using, that they use for exploration and for piping resources that they've already taken and that they leave open, and that allows the saltwater to intrude into those wetlands and kill a lot of the marsh flora that exist there.
M: Once the saltwater gets into the marshes and bayous, it's an all-downhill sort of thing?
C: Pretty much. There's a short period of time where you can mitigate the impact, but it's very, very limited and also, when they dredge these canals, they have what they call "spill banks" which are the leftover sediment that they try to make sort of temporary levees. What happens is when these storm surges come in, they're funneled and channeled into these canals. They spill over, and then they get into the wetlands that are behind these spill banks and that causes further erosion. Our estimates for the oil and gas companies (responsibility) would be about 40 to 60% of the wetlands losses suffered since the 1960s or so.
M: Wow. Are you working with universities?
C: Absolutely! I'm actually the campus organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network, and what we do, on campuses is that we go and present the different information to classes, be it from sociology to biology to chemistry, pretty much anyone who would be interested in the scientific or the advocacy area of our work, and then we have internships available where they assist on donor campaigns, campaign organizing, community outreach, research and a number of other things on a wide range of issues.
M: How does global warming relate to the local problems?
C: Well locally you know, first of all, you have the rise in sea level which, with a lot of Southern Louisiana at sea level or below sea level, naturally plays a part in saltwater intrusion as well as magnifying the intensity of hurricanes, the frequency of large hurricanes, as well as how far a storm surge can go because it's kind of that vicious cycle where the salt water is intruding, it's killing wetlands more rapidly, also the sea level rise which is allowing more water to be readily available to be pushed inland from storm surge.
M: You had said something earlier about asking the governors in the area to get involved in confronting global warming.
C: Yes, that's one of our campaign issues right now. Our global climate change staffer, Casey DeMoss Roberts, is putting together a (proposal), focusing now on getting Governor Jindal to bring up, in the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, which is made up of all the Gulf state governors, to make global climate change a priority issue for the region, because right now it's not and we think that's a mistake, because we are already starting to see the impacts of climate change, and we have to prepare for those ones that we're fairly certain are going to occur, as well as to begin mitigating our impact, our contributions to global climate change.
M: Are you in contact with any of the countries in the Caribbean? Are any of the countries in the Caribbean trying to do anything like you're trying to advise?
C: Not that I'm aware of right now. We're focused mainly on the United States, but there are Caribbean countries as well as Latin American countries that share the Gulf of Mexico.
M: Well, that's a lot of good information right now, so thank you for that.
C: Well thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity to get this information out there.
If you want to learn more about the Gulf Restoration Network, or even get involved with them as a volunteer or intern, or become a member or donate a few bucks, go to http://healthygulf.org/.
While we're on the subject, I want to go into a little more detail about how saltwater intrusion affects the wetlands, because I don't think that is understood very well by the average citizen, so I am inserting this paragraph from a website called Mission 2010 New Orleans, for your information: click here for the actual website.
Salt water intrusion
Written by Sara Barnowski and Leigh Casadaban
Salt water intrusion is a major cause of wetland loss and is increased by canal systems. Currently, there are 10 major navigation canals and countless smaller ones winding intricately through the wetlands of southeast Louisiana. These canals are used for transportation for oil companies that drill in the wetlands, and for the agricultural areas in the region. However, they connect the inland, freshwater wetlands with the Gulf of Mexico. This increases the salinity of the freshwater areas causing vegetation deterioration and land loss. Also, because of the flow of traffic through the canals and the instability of the surrounding soil, the wetlands are very easily eroded. Consequently, the brackish water penetrates even further into the wetlands. This increase in salinity is toxic to many of the plant species that grow there. Much of the time the community cannot handle the sudden increase in salinity, and the plants die. The fewer plants there are in the wetlands the more unstable the soil is because the plants' root systems hold much of the substrate together. The loose soil is then more easily eroded, which connects the vicious circle of erosion and plant loss.
To return now to my narrative, after I interviewed Collin, I put my pen and small recorder in my pocket, grabbed a beer and headed back to the music across the grass. Southern Cross was up and their lead singer, Nicki Rhodes, was really cooking and the audience was lovin' it. More about today's bands in Part 2.
Southern Cross on stage