Heart of Louisiana: Atchafalaya

Louisiana’s Atchafalaya swamp is a critical floodway for the Mississippi River, and it’s also been impacted by the timber and oil industries.
Published: May. 14, 2023 at 3:53 PM CDT

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Louisiana’s Atchafalaya swamp is a critical floodway for the Mississippi River, and it’s also been impacted by the timber and oil industries. But it’s still an amazing wilderness.

As we quietly drift through the Atchafalaya basin swamp, the dark clear water perfectly mirrors the tall cypress trees, this is the largest river swamp in the united states.

“When you go to the grand canyon, it says the grand canyon is a million acres, and we’re sitting right now in a million acres of unbroken wetlands in the middle of the United States,” said Bryan Piazza.

This swamp is home to 300 species of wildlife. It’s a major producer of wild-caught crawfish, but over the last century, it’s been stripped of its giant old growth. Cypress trees become a target for oil and gas exploration and are vital for flood control on the Mississippi River. It’s an amazing place today, but you ever wonder what it was like before these trees were cut 150, 200 years ago?

“We always wonder what it would’ve looked like when we had this majestic forest of large trees interspersed throughout this swamp and numerous species of birds that are now extinct flying through here,” said Joe Baustian.

“There’s a little rectangular placard,” Piazza said.

A high water marker was placed on a cypress tree during the 2011 river flood.

“There was white water all through the woods in here, as the water was just, it was like a 15-mile wide river going to the Gulf of Mexico,” said Piazza.

“The levees have confined the basin. They were put up for flood control which shrunk the size of the basin by about 50%. and then internally, we’ve had numerous oil and gas canals. Logging canals have been put up over the past hundred years, and that just changes the way that water flows internally in this system,” said Joe Baustian.

Joe Baustian and Bryan Piazza are working with the nature conservancy to try to fix some of the basin’s problems. When canals were dug, the dirt was piled up along the banks creating earthen levees. The straight canals get scoured and deepened by the flow of water causing the natural meandering bayous to dry up.

“And this is the old Bayou channel, which had existed for who knows how many years, it began to silt up,” Baustian said.

They showed me where the dark-colored swamp water meets the light chocolate-colored silt-rich water from the river.

“Water from the river is holding all that water back in the swamp, and if that happens during the really hot part of the, summer, when the water temperature is really high, the oxygen will leave and this area will go hypoxic. and we’ll get big fish kills back in here,” said Piazza.

To begin reversing the damage the nature conservancy will begin cutting notches in some of the spoil banks on these man-made canals.

“You just dig out these spoil banks, you move that material, and then the water’s ability to flow through here just like it would have historically,” said Baustian.

Much of the research work is being coordinated through the nature conservancy’s new floating facility on the edge of the basin.

“You know, this is a remote place, and so if they can have a place out here to stay, we can facilitate more intensive research projects,” Piazza said.

The goal is to stop the environmental decay and perhaps nurture the regrowth of the Atchafalaya swamp’s cypress giants.

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