A version of this story is published in Public Lab's Community Science Forum, Issue 15.
New Orleans' Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle was once a vibrant old-growth cypress swamp, used for everything from boating, camping, and hunting, to bird watching, fishing, and crabbing. It served a vital role in the lives of neighbors in the adjoining Lower Ninth Ward. But in the 1960s, the government wanted to create a faster route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of New Orleans so ships could avoid navigating the twists and turns of the Mississippi River to reach the city.
The construction of a 76-mile long canal, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), destroyed nearly 30,000 acres of wetlands and resulted in saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico into estuaries, killing the cypress swamps and decimating wildlife habitats. Erosion led to the MRGO quadrupling in width in some areas, affecting more than a million acres of coastal habitat. Even worse, a lack of infrastructure at the ports meant few ships ended up using the channel. Plans to improve the port were quietly forgotten in the 1980s.
With a lack of wetlands to serve as natural protection, the MRGO exacerbated the storm surge during Hurricane Katrina, leading to levee and flood wall failures, devastating huge swaths of land in the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, and St. Bernard Parish further downstream. Its eventual closure in 2009 took place as a result of the recommendation put forth by NGOs and other key stakeholders. A Congressionally mandated plan was created by the Army Corps of Engineers to help restore the local wetlands to help protect the New Orleans area in future storms. But disagreements between the state and federal government led to lawsuits (still unsettled), with neither side acting to implement the proposed MRGO Ecosystem Restoration Plan. Widespread public support has enhanced restoration efforts, in spite of the legal stalemate, and the state is moving forward with pieces of the plan by using BP dollars in the master plan.
"Our residents deserve to have the bayou restored; it's about creating a healthy ecosystem that can provide some storm surge benefits and recreation, as well as neighborhood beautification," says Happy Johnson, Chief Resilience Officer at the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED). "Now that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet has been closed with a rock dam for some time and the salinity issues are continually evolving, we are optimistic that the Bayou Bienvenue Wetlands Triangle can return to becoming a freshwater cypress swamp through the implementation of key restoration measures. But we have to stay vigilant in our application of engagement and advocacy. We're working closely with National Wildlife Federation, the New Orleans' Office of Resilience and Sustainability, as well as the state's Coastal Protection & Restoration Authority, to push forward comprehensive plans for restoration of the Triangle."
The CSED was founded in 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to help residents of the Lower Ninth Ward rebuild their homes with sustainable and energy-efficient materials, with the help of volunteer and skilled labor. "Our founders sought to support the immediate reconstruction of the Lower Nine in a way that enhanced the health of people and the natural environment; they were also diligent in terms of protecting residents' rights to return," says Happy. "The neighborhood has a strong history of black home-ownership: the highest, at one point, in the entire city. We have fought to sustain the history and culture of this place."
The organization is now focused on creating a sustainable, energy-efficient, and environmentally conscious culture in the ward, with major organizational milestones including the construction and maintenance of the Bayou Bienvenue Observation Deck, the coordination of 5,000 volunteers to rebuild homes and sweep streets, creation of a community garden, and serving as consultants for neighborhood and environmental restoration efforts in the area.
Happy joined members of Public Lab and the Gulf Restoration Network for a recent balloon mapping event on Bayou Bienvenue. "Our staff wanted to balloon map because, while the boundaries of the Triangle have not changed, the ecosystem and wildlife habitat is constantly evolving as a result of climate change and recent hurricane safety measures that control the flow of water in and out of the ecosystem," says Happy. "We want to learn how to track these changes so we can share that knowledge with members of the community and empower them to do something about it. That's why we're out here mapping, and doing soil and salinity testing.
"I'm proud to be a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward with a longtime history here," he continues. "Our residents are committed to a future that involves the complete restoration of our waterways and streets. The key for us with restoration is equity, participation, and inclusion. Design, planning, engineering, construction, and maintenance have to involve residents who live next to the wetlands. That's why we're working with government officials on how to better engage the community. If we try to rebuild the bayou without involving the people around it, then it won't be successful. We want to do this together, in an intentional way."
Happy Johnson, Chief Resilience Officer at the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development
Balloon mapping in the Bayou Bienvenue Wetlands Triangle