Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Voice of the Wetlands Festival, Part 3: The Cajun and the Lake

I am continuing, as requested, to post the series on the Voice of the Wetlands Festival, 2008, that I first wrote for between October and December. Here is Part 3.

Original Content at

original article: November 3, 2008

The Voice of the Wetlands Festival, Part 3: The Cajun and the Lake

By Mac McKinney

(To read Part 1, click here)

(To read Part 2, click here)

Sunday morning, October 12, Houma, Louisiana:

I have been experiencing the Voice of the Wetlands Festival for the last two days, enjoying the music and learning more about the ecology of the wetlands. But now my wife and I have to cut short our visit, even though the festival will resume at Noon, and head on back to New Orleans International Airport to catch a mid-afternoon flight. But the plight of southern Louisiana has not been lost on me, nor hopefully, on you, the reader.

The wetlands of Louisiana are being destroyed by 1) blocking off the annual sediment deposits from the Mississippi River, 2) the building of endless canals crisscrossing the southern Louisiana wetlands that then invite the insidious spread of destructive saltwater intrusion, and of course, 3) by contractors being allowed to bulldoze, fill in and pave the wetlands in the interests of commercial development. But there is another factor that also affects, not only the wetlands, but all the waterways - rivers, lakes, bayous, etc., and that is urban, industrial and agricultural pollution of these waterways. This became clear to me as I was driving back from the festival this Sunday morning.

As we were leaving the outskirts of Houma, first I was able to get a good look at one of the many canals dredged out in Louisiana, canals that have become part of the environmental problem. This one was running under Floyd Duplantis Bridge below:

Floyd Duplantis Bridge on the outskirts of Houma, Louisiana

Here is the canal itself:

A canal running under the bridge. Note the large pipes running down into the water. I assume they are suction and discharge pipes connected to a pumping station just to the right in what I guess you can call a spill-over pond, or even secondary canal, because it runs parallel to the first canal as far as the horizon, as you will see in the second photo after the one of the pumping station directly below:

What must be a pump station for controlling canal water volume. Note the pollution and heavy surface vegetation that suggests water deterioration, even toxicity.

Looking south at this same "spill" canal, if I can technically call it that, you see that this thick film of aquatic vegetation coats the entire surface, suggesting a stagnant, perhaps even putrid body of eutrophic water. What happens when storms and hurricanes cause this canal to, in turn, exceed its boundaries and flood over the land, soaking into the soil, or even into other bodies of water?

The pea-green "spill canal" that the pumping station dumps water into

Continuing on back toward New Orleans on Highway 90, we eventually passed by the small city of Raceland, situated on Bayou Laforche in Lafourche Parish, and then a few minutes later saw a pier/souvenir shop complex just off the highway to my right. Curious to see if the shop was open, I pulled into the parking lot, grabbed my camera and hopped out. The business itself was closed so I walked toward the pier where a medium-sized, shallow-draft tour boat was moored, with no one about.

Pierside at Lac des Allemands

When I walked to the water's edge and peered right, I could see the pier wall extending south quite a ways, actually merging into a rather quaint canal adjoining the lake, with houses on both sides, the water level already almost lapping into their yards, creating a sort of mini-Venice between the highway and the lake. And this was likely just as prone to all the flooding problems that beset the good people of Venice, Italy.

A small community living on a canal adjoining the lake

When I turned and looked directly at the lake itself, I could see an extensive body of calm, blue water, with a small island in the foreground, probably once part of the landscape protruding into the lake, and dim tree lines in the far distance, quite a majestic view. After taking a few photos I turned back toward the highway and started to take a few more shots in that direction.

Looking out over Lac des Allemands

Meet Lee Richoux

At that same moment, a car pulled into the parking lot, drove right past me, and then started to make a large U-turn. I could see there was just the solitary driver inside. On the spur of the moment, I decided to hail him down to ask what the name of this lake was as he approached me again. As he stopped, I walked over to the driver's side as he rolled down his window and started shooting the breeze with him. I didn't try to record the conversation or photograph him, although at some point he realized I was a journalist without my telling him, and at that point I began to take some notes.

His name was Lee Richoux, and he was an elderly albeit sturdy and ruddy-faced, long-time resident of this enchanted part of Southern Louisiana that includes Lafourche, Terrebonne and St Charles Parishes, a one hundred percent Cajun man he related, and he spoke with a pleasant, rich Cajun voice, almost musical, at first simply replying to my query as to the name of the lake right behind me. "Lac des Allemands." (which means "Lake of the Germans" – not only Acadians settled in this area, but Germans too.) This topic gave him an opportunity to soon wax indignant about the long and still ongoing tragedy befalling this lake, which, I had been totally oblivious of until now:

"In the last seven or eight years we have seen great destruction occurring to all life in the lake, the birds, fish and vegetation. Lac des Allemands used to be a great haven for birds."

Now, he explained, the continuous salt-water intrusion coming up through Lake Savador has wrecked havoc on the bird population. "Vast flocks of every imaginable species of duck, French, Northern Pin, Teal", to name a few, as well as an abundance of egrets, he continued, used to hone in on the lake from their flyways from up north as Winter approached. Now they are close to gone, Lee lamented, conscious that the kind of aquatic life and vegetation that they depend on has been depleted by the insidious intrusion of saltwater.

To verify Lee's claims about the lake, I went online later and did some research. I couldn't find an outright salinity report on des Allemands, but unfortunately enough, Lac des Allemands is classified as a "eutrophic freshwater lake system", meaning that is in a later stage of erosion, although this doesn't necessarily mean it is high in salinity. However, there is a heavy nutrient content, with, particularly, more nitrogen and phosphorus than in an oligotrophic lake, which is an earlier, healthier stage in the life cycle of a lake, when there is an abundance of oxygen as well as fish, who depend, of course, on the oxygen.

An oligotrophic lake lacks what is called "high primary productivity", an ecological term that can best be described as the development of a large, blue-green algae population, which will increasingly degrade the water quality. Where there is a large algal bloom, there will be less and less fish and, consequently, less of the birds who feed on fish, such as the heron. Ultimately, a eutrophic lake will develop more and more vegetation with a larger and larger littoral zone (of aquatic plant life), and gradually transform into a marsh. This may be the ultimate fate of Lac des Allemands, which has dense algal blooms for nine to ten months of the year.

The degree of nutrients pollution in the lake is largely a man-made phenomenon. A study by C. A. Stow, R. D. De Laune and W. H. Patrick, Jr. from the Laboratory for Wetland Soils and Sediments, Center tor Wetland Resources, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, entitled, "Nutrient Fluxes in a Eutrophic Coastal LouisianaFreshwater Lake" reports:

Increased urbanization, industrialization, and modern agricultural practices threaten to alter the balance of Louisiana's vast coastal wetlands. Effective management practices are becoming necessary in order to allow maximum resource usage while preserving the integrity of this wetland ecosystem. There is a need for an understanding of the basic regulatory mechanisms governing water quality in shallow coastal lakes in order to insure proper resource management of these water bodies. Effective management decisions must be based on a good understanding of the chemical, biologic, and geologic processes occurring in such systems. This study reveals factors that regulate nutrient fluxes, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus in Lac des Allemands, a large shallow lake in the Barataria Basin region of southern Louisiana. Barataria Basin lies between Bayou Lafourche and the Mississippi River. Leveeing of these two water courses has eliminated riverine flooding and limited hydrologic input to approximately 150 cm/year of precipitation. Lac des Allemands is a freshwater lake in the upper reaches of Barataria Basin. It has an area of approximately 65 km 2 and a depth ranging from 2 to 3 m. The lake is highly eutrophic with intense algal production from early spring through late autumn. The basin morphometry and fetch of the lake, and low relief of the surrounding area, prevent seasonal stratification. The lake is polymictic. The two main inlets feeding Lac des Allemands are Bayou Chevreuil and Bayou Boeuf. The bayous are sluggish (average velocity = 0.14 m/s) and turbid (average secchi depth = 0.29 m) (Butler 1975) and both empty into the southwest Corner of the lake. (source)

Whether or not increased salinity from Lake Salvador coming up through Bayou des Allemands on into Lac des Allemands is a key factor in the deterioration of the lake and its wildlife habitat, urban and agricultural runoff from New Orleans and other points north certainly is. But not to be completely forlorn, at least the lake still has good catfish.

Lee went on to say that he used to be a local entertainer in places like nearby Raceland, which was certainly reflected in his ease of speech, and he began to shift focus from the lake itself to the larger social and political environment that could allow, not only this one lake, but many lakes and waterways in Louisiana to suffer so much environmental deterioration and destruction. He deplored the culture of greed he now sees prevalent in the land that drives this callousness. He sees the situation both in local government and in Washington as pitiful. "It's the power they want!" he decried, and the money that goes with it that animates the whole American political system, and he described how the system keeps reproducing itself, as newly elected officials and appointees are sucked into its corrupt snares. "They bullshit these poor people", meaning political newcomers. "It's like they throw a spell over them and kidnap them." He could say this because he was speaking from experience.

"I used to be on the inside looking out", Lee recalled, meaning that at one point in time he was involved in local politics, and then life was good, financially. But once he was on the outside looking in, he saw how hard things were, and now they are getting worse.

"It's hard for me to make a living now", Lee quipped, alluding to the chaos on Wall Street and in the banking system, complaining that he can't make any money by investing in a bank, that CDs and saving accounts now pay next to nothing in interest. He doesn't even want to touch the stock market.

And as he looks around him, all Lee sees is growing impoverishment and environmental catastrophe in southern Louisiana. "Things definitely need to change. Our area has been crippled." So he hopes there will be a big change with the elections in November. Those were his last thoughts as he said Adieu and drove off.

I can't help but think that Lac des Allemands is a metaphor for the country right now, as the formerly clear, oxygenated waters of life supporting the teeming American masses have been clouded and degraded by the toxic runoff of financial capital and industrial excess, creating a satiated environment of the wrong kind of nutrients - unbridled power, unbridled concentration of wealth, unbridled pollution - leading to a debauched explosion of noxious weeds, parasite blooms so-to-speak, that are strangling the oxygen out of the land and the population.


After that moment at the lake, I didn't stop again until I reached New Orleans. I was trying to drive back to the Lower Ninth Ward one last time before my flight left, but we got stuck in some heavy traffic backed up around the Superdome for a Saints game. Finally we got through that mess and headed out Claiborne Avenue for the Ward. But we will talk about what transpired there next time.

In the back of my mind I kept thinking of how I had run into, of all things while driving through southern Louisiana today, a remarkable statue of Kwan Yin, as if this was a portent from the Universe:

Kwan Yin is pouring out her vase of holy dew as she gestures. She is the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and she stands right off the highway near Houma. Will she bless southern Louisiana and America with her divine love this November (2008)?


akesling said...

The destruction of our wetlands by developers in cahoots with local elected officials is happening everywhere. I wrote President Obama, regarding his talk to America's mayors. He talked about how they should do right with the money they are about to receive, but my question to the President was, "how could he trust them when they were the ones that helped on the groundfloor with the housing crisis?" The mayors allowed their developer friends to build houses on wetland buffers even though the lots were too small. They were allowed to erect giant, overpriced homes (certianly NOT affordable houses,) with taxpayer assistance, yet the mayors are now being given more bucks to carry out their money-making, anti-constitutent, anti-wetlands agendas.

Star Womanspirit said...

Great article Mac...I'm so glad you've posted this.

Did you take the photos? They are impressive!


Johnny said...

Where is that statue located? I'm from the area yet i've never seen it.