NEW ORLEANS TO VIOLET
It was very rainy in the early morning hours, but lightened up for our run. The route took him past the New Orleans Port and through downtown and the French Quarter then into Crescent Park and out of town toward Violet. We landed there on an oak tree-lined section of St. Bernard Hwy right at Docville Farm, a property of the Arlene & Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, but before our meetings we had time for some lunch and some wandering. The rain was still coming down heavily, but we attempted to drive out to Delacroix. As we followed the road, we came upon a barricaded segment and thought we were out of luck. Later we’d be informed of the correct road to follow to get to “the End of the World” as they say.
We circled back and landed at Docville Farm again for our meeting with Chris Haines of the Meraux Foundation. He had also invited Bill Hyland, parish historian, to join us. Bill is the eleventh generation of his family on his mother’s side from New Orleans AND St. Bernard, he says. I wondered how you could be from both places, and he quickly—or rather promptly, because nothing is quick when Bill speaks with his bellowing, somewhat formal, steadily paced and expanded Southern drawl—he promptly went into a deep and thorough explanation of the history of Louisiana that led us to the establishment of St. Bernard Parish by way of New Orleans. “There would be no St. Bernard without a New Orleans and the two are inextricably intertwined,” he summed up. The history lesson is one you should go down to Los Islenos Museum Complex in St. Bernard and get yourself direct from Bill.
Moving up a few generations, we learned that St. Bernard before Katrina was primarily known for craftsman—your masons, electricians, plumbers. It was a blue collar, bedroom community for New Orleans because, as Chris said, “we are a sliver by the river.” By that he’s referring to the amount of land in St. Bernard Parish—that is, technically, the parish is double the size of Orleans, but the majority of that “land” is marsh, very literally wet land, you can’t walk on it. And that sliver that Chris referred to is packed full with refineries, two gas, two oil, a sugar refinery, with additional large employers being the school system and the parish government. The bulk of the people living there are working elsewhere, they say.
Another thing about that sliver, what’s “crazy” about it, according to Chris and Bill, is that it’s some of the youngest land in America that didn’t come from a volcano. This parcel of land that is St. Bernard is no more than three thousand years old (pretty young compared to the rest of North America at 200 million years old!). The very quality of this new land is what has invited so many of the culprits that have contributed to its disappearance. It’s a very organic soil, so the oil and gas is rich just beneath the surface and “they dig canals straight to where they want to go,” says Chris. You end up with salt water intrusion, tides ripping back and forth, and pumping inside the levees leads to subsidence. “We’re in a fragile ecosystem, and we are certainly on the bleeding edge,” said Chris.
Bill echoed these concerns, “I would say one more terrible hurricane though and Delacroix Island would be gone.” And it was at this point that Bill and Chris straightened us out as to how to get to Delacroix—Bayou Rd is the way. We would get to a fork and go left to another “end of the world” called Hopedale, or stay straight to that “end of the world” which is Delacroix.
Of course later in the week, we’d be heading to an entirely other “end of the world” in Plaquemines Parish in Venice, LA, and I grew up spending summers in the last “end of the world at Grand Isle (closer to LaFourche Parish, but technically in Jefferson), a barrier island off the tip of the boot. I think we should have the “end” covered at this point.
At this point our conversation had expanded beyond the confines of the conference room, through the glass walls, to include Blaise Pezold, Chris’s “coastal person” as he called him, but technically Coastal and Environmental Program Manager at the Meraux Foundation. Blaise and Chris have been shouting figures at each other through the glass walls for a few minutes and finally Chris says “get in here!” so Blaise saunters in. We jumped right in to talking about Blaise’s work—is it research or fieldwork? Apparently it’s application, hands on. Right now he’s working with the Water Institute of the Gulf to study how you capture sediment within plants because it’s not well defined. There’s no book you can go read about it. So they are building a project, trying out an “alignment” that no one has used before. That basically means that they are trying out a set up or arrangement of plants with space between them for water to flow and allow sediment to accumulate. Blaise’s alignment plan basically builds upon itself so that it’s self-reproducing.
There’s a somewhat political process of getting from idea to implementation with these things, just in terms of getting the funding through a program called CWPPRA or the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act. CWPPRA is a consortium of several federal agencies along with the state and it’s the biggest pot of money that regularly has come in for the last thirty years which is anywhere between $100 and $150 million, according to Blaise. He says, “you could literally draw something on the back of a napkin in a bar and hand it in and say this is what we want to build, but most people do a nice write up… they just need to get an agency to pick up their idea at some point. Which has happened. Often.” Programs that have CWPPRA funding, for example, are the nutria bounty program, and a hog trapping pilot program.
All this work is driven and steered by the “master plan” or the CPRA (Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority) Master Plan. According to Blaise, the plan is good. It’s the best thing we’ve got, but it needs to be better too. Every year it needs to get better. “It puts a price tag on what things will cost, and the price tags are ridiculous. But it doesn’t say we’re gonna spend X amount on this, we’re gonna spend X amount on that. It’s all up to the discretion of state leaders or…. trustees.” Blaise’s sediment project is not stipulated in the Master Plan but it’s not against it either. There’s a section that says you can use native vegetation to try to build land in any way possible, so his idea is totally in line as an interpretation, but it also doesn’t have direct funding either.
Now, as I sit there absorbing all this information, I’m trying to get a grasp on where we stand. How far have we come since the early days of oil and gas wrecking the marshland? Since Katrina? Since BP? With so many activists and NGO’s and the Master Plan—where are we today? I notice that Blaise has on an LSU Tiger hat. I ask him, “if you had to put it in football terms, like how much progress we’re making?”
Blaise asks, “I would say—are you really familiar with LSU?”
“I am,” I reply.
“Ok,” he continues. “We were in pre-Saban years, and now we’re probably between Saban and Les Miles, somewhere around there. We’re not at Ed Ogeron yet. Like the stuff we’re doing now, every once in a while I go like, ‘oh crap, I can’t believe we got this far.’ Because … if it’s a car, right, we kept putting patches on the wheels, constantly, let’s just keep running it, and it’ll be ok. And now, well, we redid all the wheels now. The engine was giving us trouble, so we dropped a new engine in it. Now we’ve got this going, but ultimately the whole body of the car is falling apart, and the entire inside needs to be redone. We’re in an interesting stage of knocking out huge projects….”
So this is heartening, for sure, but just as things look up, we look down and find a different problem. The subject changed to awareness, who’s invested in river issues—locally, statewide, upriver, etc. Chris tells us that they’re now learning it’s less than 30% of the nitrogen and phosphorus contributions in the river that are coming from factory farming. Instead, 48% are coming from human waste. And he repeats it with exclamation: “Human Waste!” 8% is from other industries. This was just out in October. So apparently improper handling of our sewerage, because it’s cheaper to assimilate it back into a waterway, is cousing this problem. And yes they cook it in a blacklight to get all the virus and bacteria out, but that doesn’t remove the nitrogen and phosphorus which then floats its way down to the Dead Zone.
“We treat the river wrong,” says Chris somberly. And Blaise affirms that it’s not just large municipalities. It’s individuals with septic systems that are underperforming or not performing at all, and it’s very hard to keep track of them or monitor them. I should circle back to my cousin Brady about this….
Across today’s conversation, Bill, Chris, Blaise, we learned a lot about St. Bernard the place, the people, the way of life. We also learned about he Meraux Foundation, what it’s doing to steward the land and lead by example in this strange state where so many private citizens own our coastal lands and have rights when it comes to restoring them. St. Bernard has some ongoing fights, but this is a good team working for it with a good mindset. Blaise closed out our conversation saying, “I kind of look at oil and gas like steam ships on the river. You know at one point that was king and at some point our economy is going to be driven by other means…. I view Louisiana as a water working people, we’ve been doing it since the 30’s, it’s more of we have to transition our economy into something that works in the future rather than get caught in the past…” I hope people start signing on to his vision.
Onward to the “End of the World”!