Rescuing The Nation’s Largest Cypress Swamp; Home of a Declining Ecosystem and Vulnerable Coast

Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, the nation’s largest cypress swamp, nurtures an abundant ecosystem and protects a critical coast. But years of exploitation and neglect have made it a “ticking time bomb.”
Healthy cypress forests like the one pictured here at Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana, are part of what makes the Atchafalaya Basin a jewel of biodiversity.

In the swampy heart of coastal Louisiana, more than a century of abuse and neglect threaten a national treasure: the Atchafalaya Basin, the nation’s largest cypress swamp.

The more than 800,000 acres of forests, lakes and bayous contain hard-to-access wilderness and trees that are over 1,000 years old. Some of the world’s great migratory bird populations stop here on their journey across continents, and its lush swamplands nurture an unparalleled diversity of animal and aquatic life, from threatened species like sturgeon and paddlefish to Louisiana’s world-famous crawfish.

Meche’s daily catch is less than half of what it once was due to declining water quality in the basin.

The area also has another abundant resource: oil and gas. Drilling rigs and hundreds of miles of pipelines mark the region, pumping out black gold that has long enriched Atchafalaya landowners. The oil industry has constructed a vast network of canals and “spoil banks,” or excavated piles of earth that rise 10 feet or more and act as earthen dams blocking the natural flow of water that drains south into the Gulf, a problem the oil and gas industry, landowners and state agencies have been reluctant to address.

An oil well, pipelines and storage tanks sit in the middle of the swamp.

Scientists say these spoil banks are turning vast areas of the basin into stagnant pools of swamp water that are strangling the cypress forests and damaging the fisheries. Without this natural flow, huge tracts of the Atchafalaya Basin could be left unrecognizable.

Experts say backfilling the canals, or providing more gaps in the spoil banks to let more water flow through, is necessary to make the basin more sustainable. A heated debate is underway between environmentalists and the landowners and oil companies who are resisting efforts to alter the banks — and imperiling the others who rely on the ecosystem.

“The basin’s stressors are not only harming water quality and the environment but also threatening the capacity of the basin to carry floodwaters from the Mississippi and the Red Rivers safely and effectively,” Edwards noted when he announced the formation of the task force. “The basin is the nation’s largest river-basin swamp with a rich ecology, and it is past time that it receives more focused attention here in Louisiana and nationally.”

While Army Corps officials say they are studying the growing problem, members of the state’s Atchafalaya task force say they don’t have time for more studies. Last year the group of nearly two dozen local politicians, scientists, landowners, fishermen and environmentalists met a half-dozen times and came up with a list of general recommendations, despite unexpected obstacles in the form of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and another damaging season of storms.

Those included Hurricane Ida, which hit Louisiana in late August and nearly made a beeline for the Atchafalaya Basin. The Category 4 storm mercifully veered east at the last moment, but it killed more than 25 people across rural areas of the state and destroyed over a hundred square miles of Barataria marshland before it roared northeast, causing dozens more deaths and billions of dollars of damage across the country.

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