1997Public Service

Life on the sea

Early warning went unheeded
By: 
Mark Schleifstein
Staff writer
March 26, 1996

Are the World's Fisheries Doomed?

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6 | DAY 7 | DAY 8 | Index

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Woody Gagliano, a partner in Coastal Environments Inc., sounded the earliest alarms of marsh erosion when he noticed that ancient Indian shell mounds were sinking under water. Here he stands on what used to be high ground in southwestern Lake Pontchartrain.


Day Three:
Tuesday, March 26, 1996

Sinking Treasure

Conflicting interests squeeze marshes

Life on the sea: Early warning went unheeded

Human intervention breaks ancient rhythm

Everglades' surrender is slow, sad

Woody Gagliano looks almost elfin as he holds court in his Baton Rouge office, spreading scientific documents and maps across a long, dark boardroom table to explain how he came to sound the first alarms about the devastating loss of Louisiana’s wetlands.

Gagliano, 60, president of the consulting firm Coastal Environments Inc., was the first person to recognize that Loui siana’s wetlands were not regenerating every year, as scientists believed as late as 1969. Instead, they were disappearing at a rate of 16.5 square miles a year.

Silently and out of public view, Louisiana was losing its most valuable resource: the nursery for 40 percent of the nation’s seafood harvest.

Gagliano’s groundbreaking research resulted from a proposal by Texas and New Mexico officials to ‘‘steal’’ water from the Mississippi River during the mid-1960s.

‘‘The Texas Water Board wanted to divert Mississippi River water to the high plains of Texas and New Mexico,’’ Gagliano said.

The idea was to funnel the equivalent of six days of river water a year in a huge canal through southern Arkansas or northern Louisiana to irrigate cotton farms. It was supported by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the administration of then-President Johnson, a Texan.

Even though it represented only 1.6 percent of the river’s annual flow, the project had Army Corps of Engineers officials worried. They financed a four-year research program to determine the effects of removing the water from the river.

Louisiana State University’s Coastal Studies Institute was tapped to do the research, and Gagliano was given the job.

‘‘Everyone knew that freshwater inflow into Louisiana’s marshes was important,’’ Gagliano said. ‘‘But when the studies were initiated, it was generally believed there was a natural balance in coastal Louisiana, that overall every year we were gaining wetlands and estuaries were being replenished.

‘‘I questioned that,’’ Gagliano said. ‘‘I didn’t think that was true, based on the observations I already had made in my research.’’

The research rapidly turned to whether Louisiana’s coastline was shrinking because of reduced river flow into the marshes.

Gagliano drew on his personal experience to focus the research: As a high school student, he became interested in coastal archaeolgy, visiting shell heaps left behind by American Indians in the marshes of southern Louisiana.

But by the late 1960s, ‘‘The shell heaps were all eroding and sinking. It became clear to me that a lot of erosion and land-sinking was going on.’’

Gagliano had to make sense of a variety of historical maps to determine if there were any patterns to the way the coastline changed.

What he found in that first study was that Louisiana’s coastline was losing an area about two thirds the size of Manhattan each year.

In 1970, Gagliano presented his findings to the National Academy of Sciences at a meeting in Houston. By the year 2000, he said, Louisiana would lose 500 square miles of coastal wetlands.

Two years later, he presented his findings to a local audience. He told a surprised Louisiana Intracoastal Seaway Association, which represented many of the shipping interests involved in dredging navigation channels and canals, that they’d be better off spending some of their public relations dollars to build new barrier islands off the Louisiana coast to protect the interior marshes from decay.

‘‘The immediate response was disbelief,’’ Gagliano said. ‘‘No one really wanted to accept the findings because it implied we were doing something wrong.’’

In March 1974, Gagliano told the Louisiana Shrimp Association that ‘‘another 30 years of abuse at the present level will virtually destroy the viability of the Mississippi delta system.’’

Gagliano, in those early studies, suggested that mimicking the delta-building actions of the river would be the best and quickest way to replace lost wetlands. He suggested a series of man-made crevasses into Breton Sound and along the west bank of the river to begin that process.

A series of man-made barrier islands — using pilings or junked cars as a core, and sediment dredged from back bays or offshore as the topping — could protect the wetlands along the coastline from rapid erosion by the Gulf, he said.

The corps supported Gagliano’s controversial wetlands findings, and authorized additional studies of the causes and effects of the huge losses.

Gagliano’s findings were reinforced in studies by the corps and the U.S. Geological Survey that showed wetland loss in the state increasing to a high of about 40 square miles a year before falling to about 25 square miles in 1991.

Plaquemines Parish, with some state help, has opened a series of small crevasses along the river to test Gagliano’s theory, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is doing the same in the Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Congress tacitly endorsed Gagliano’s findings in 1990 with passage of the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act — better known as the Breaux-Johnston bill — that authorized about $50 million a year in combined federal and state spending on wetlands restoration projects.

But it wasn’t until 1993 that Louisiana officials, the corps and four other federal agencies endorsed the idea of major reroutings of the Mississippi River to build new deltas, including one in Breton Sound, and the building of a series of barrier island chains around the coast.

Those projects, which will cost between $1 billion and $3 billion, are years away from being financed by Congress or the state, however.

Today, Gagliano is still tinkering with new ways to protect the coast. One idea suggested by him and his coastal planning firm involves growing oysters in triangular cages on the edge of wetlands along the coast and in interior lakes to reduce wave action and provide a new source of oysters for restaurants.

And Gagliano has plenty of advice for the public officials who will be making planning decisions involving the coast.

‘‘What we get now is a lot of redundancy and overlap that is causing time delays and making things a lot more costly,’’ he said.

Gagliano recommends forming an objective commission of people who’ve been involved in wetlands issues for years to step back and review the science and technology as well as the money available and how it’s being used.

‘‘The great fear is that we’ve reached the point where this quest has momentum,’’ he said. ‘‘There are lots of dollars involved and we must avoid allowing those dollars to fall in the wrong hands and the wrong pockets.’’

Public Service 1997