- Ponchartrain Basin
The Lake Ponchartrain Basin has gotten some national attention lately, mostly for the handful of disasters over the past decade that have enlightened people to the problems along Louisiana’s coastline. Coastlines around the world are becoming increasingly dangerous places to live, with sea level rise already overcoming islands in the Pacific and predicted to move up to three feet (elevation) inland over the next 89 years. Three feet in some places may not mean much, where rocky coastlines are typical, but for low flat marshes like much of the eastern US, and for small islands, 3 feet of elevated sea levels can inundate millions of acres of land.
On a national level, we don’t like to talk about climate change much, and seemingly would rather debate over who is responsible for it (nature or man?) instead of looking at the facts and thinking about how to adapt. Along the coasts, we have no choice but to address the issues we face, or be overtaken. In many soft alluvial coastlines, again, like coasts along the eastern US, coastal erosion and subsidence will just add to the losses over the next century. It’s not all a result of climate change. Much of the settling and erosion is natural, some is a result of development on unsuitable wetland soil, and some is a result of industrial activities and other interference with waterways.
Lake Ponchartrain is an estuary, comparable in function to the Chesapeake Bay and to the Everglades in terms of biodiversity and overall ecological functions. It is surrounded on the north shore by cypress swamps and bottomland hardwood forests, and on the south shore it is the built up city of New Orleans and the sprawling communities of Metairie and Kenner. I live just north of a land bridge that connects Lake Ponchartrain (the largest lake in the image) with the smaller Lake Maurepas to the west. Lake Maurepas has been noted for having some of the healthiest swamps, most viable for restoration. Just west of Lake Maurepas is Baton Rouge, the growing city projected to be one of 3 major cities in the Gulf Coast Mega-Region by 2050 (along with New Orleans and Houston). Baton Rouge is sprawling, uncontrolled, and the development is rapidly making its way down into the Maurepas swamps via exurban growth into Ascension and Livingston Parishes.
There are people who notice this, and who recognize the threat, but the pressure is huge and so it keeps churning. All the while I am amazed that we are even here, inhabiting this unlikely swamp and making something of it. This is a place where environmental literacy is absolutely necessary for survival, yet otherwise well-educated and intelligent people still don’t understand the basics of hydrology and drainage management and wetland dynamics. People who should know better, like engineers and developers, are twisting us ever-closer to widespread and irreparable degradation. As a culture, we haven’t yet learned that we shouldn’t build in floodplains, and if we must, then we have to adopt certain practices to ensure that our short-term manipulations of the environment do not put us at great risk in the long-term. People are building subdivisions in wetlands, and then getting angry when their houses flood. The 100-year flood waters do not simply disappear when you make the ground flat and add new soil. If you do succeed in raising yourself high enough out of the water by land reshaping, then you are displacing a specific volume of water that will flood out your neighbors.
Drainage canals are getting deeper, and the foundations of houses sink towards the eroding banks. Who is responsible for all of this? It’s the culture, and not the culture of Louisiana per se– because many traditional cultures in Louisiana (post-colonization) tailored their building styles and sites according to the landscape. Even in Louisiana, traditional swamp homes were often designed as cheap, temporary shelters that would offer little resistance when flood waters and hurricanes threatened. Now people build expensive, permanent homes in areas where flood insurance costs would be outrageous if they truly reflected the risks.
This new practice isn’t a result of traditional culture, but a result of human attempts to dominate nature rather than adapt to it. Our new building techniques have come from places that don’t face the same challenges. Builders in Louisiana often build as if they can’t see the marshes right next door (or under their feet). It is not even something for which the people of Louisiana can be proud of creating, yet people have accepted the strip malls, tract housing and retention basins as if this is their own great invention– something worth defending.
I like the image above because it is a satellite view, where differences in colors show differences in land use. You can see the spotty, white patches of urban areas. You can see the long slices of agricultural land along the rivers. You can see the frightening fragmentation on the north shore, by farm land and suburbs and little cities and towns, and you can also see the last few continous blocks of green– the swamps, which are highly disturbed, mostly declining but still intact. There’s the dwindling coast line, the vanishing barrier islands… the snapshot of a place that will never again look this way.
Louisiana is a fantastic, dynamic place. It is a place of water and oil, with a dark past and uncertain future, much like Appalachian coal country. Sometimes I feel so out of place here, but I identify with this landscape. I have spent the first 6 years of my adult life studying here; working with the soil and the heat and the l’aissez faire culture… and just trying to find my place. I want to call this Basin mine, but at times it seems like it is all just slipping through my fingers.