About thirty miles from my front door, heavy barges are dumping rocks into Louisiana's Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO), hoping to permanently plug the de-commissioned shipping channel before the end of the next hurricane season. It's a big plug. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that the structure will weigh 430,000 tons, "with a base 450 feet wide, tapering to 12 feet wide at the top." The rock wall "will jut 7 feet from the water's surface and be 950 feet long. It will cover 10 acres of the channel bottom."
The MRGO--or as locals say, "Mr. Go"-- opened some 45 years ago as a shipping shortcut – sort of like a highway bypass that, in this case, allows commercial river barges to avoid a winding part of the Mississippi and instead zip straight to New Orleans. Activists have been trying to close it down for almost as long, citing environmental, economic, and safety concerns.
After Hurricane Katrina, an independent investigation by Louisiana State University in 2006 found that Mr. Go had amplified flood damage by funneling the storm's surge into the heart of New Orleans. "[S]urge elevations," it said, "peaked in Lake Borgne and the [Inner Harbor Navigation Canal] at nearly the same time, and at higher levels . . . than would have been true if the MRGO did not exist and had not caused so much wetland loss." The Army Corps disputes the claim, arguing that Katrina’s surge was too large for the channel to have made a difference. Last week a local environmental consultant suggested to me that Mr. Go could not have funneled Katrina's storm surge because the channel's earthen walls had disintegrated before the big water had even arrived. When failed levees are the good news, you know you're in trouble.
We'll probably never know for sure how Mr. Go affected Katrina's path. But we know this: during its 45-year tenure Mr. Go demolished thousands of acres of protective wetlands and became one of the region’s most outrageous boondoggles.
The construction of the channel, along with decades of erosion, have caused the loss of nearly 28,000 acres of cypress swamps and marsh and has converted another 38,000 acres to less stable, higher-salinity habitats. In some sections, Mr. Go is now more than 2,000 feet wide at the surface. Louisiana's wetlands are part of the Gulf's "green infrastructure," supporting fisheries, regulating salinity, and buffering inland communities from angry storms. For these reasons, the Army Corps is also developing a plan to restore surrounding marshland, build new barrier islands, and divert freshwater from the Mississippi River. (For an interactive map showing what needs to be done, go here.)
Mr. Go has also been an economic burden. Despite the Army Corps's early optimistic forecasts, shipping traffic never did reach expected levels even as maintenance costs increased. Until recently taxpayers spent $22 million a year in dredging to accommodate a small number of shippers whose business contributed less than $1 million a year to the Port of New Orleans.
The saga of Mr. Go is just a tiny example of how Louisiana's watery savannas have been abused over the years. Louisiana’s coastal plain contains one of the largest expanses of coastal wetlands in the contiguous United States. They are, to quote from the Army Corps of Engineers, one of “the most productive and important natural assets” in the country. Twenty percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is taken from Gulf waters, most of it nourished by the wetlands. Millions of migratory birds, important to the birding and hunting industries, depend on the state's marshes for rest and refueling.
Unbelievably, this titan among wetlands is disappearing before our very eyes. Today, the Army Corps Engineers believes Louisiana is losing about 6,600 acres coastal wetlands every year. Channels like Mr. Go are a major cause. Louisiana’s coastal plain is crisscrossed with a vast matrix of navigational canals, including ten major navigational channels and literally thousands of smaller access canals serving navigation, allowing oil rig access, and cradling oil and gas pipelines. From a skiff or canoe, these swamps look lusty and vital. But from a plane, the view is depressing—like green shag carpet being eaten by a Pac-Man.
To add insult to injury, while the entire nation benefits from all that transportation and energy production, it’s only Louisiana that foots the environmental cost. And when we demand that the federal government restore the wetlands erased by federal projects like Mr. Go, the feds demand state matching funds to demonstrate our “commitment” to having healthy resources. (For instance, the feds are willing to pay the full costs of Mr. Go’s rock barrier, but want the state to pay 35 percent of the costs to replace the wetlands.) Or when local activists demand that Big Oil contribute its share to restoring the wetlands that it has helped destroy, locals are told (by both industry and the state) that it is rude to "point fingers."
So please applaud the closing of Mr. Go. But don't forget that American's wetland has many more holes to plug. Who's willing to drop the next stone?