THE GREAT FLOOD OF 2011:
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
Here are some reflections from your Atchafalaya Basinkeeper about the effects of the Great Flood of 2011 on the Atchafalaya Basin.

THE GOOD:
The Atchafalaya Basin is being flushed out as I write these lines. One thing that I want every American to know is that our government does not enforce our environmental laws equally for everyone. To us ordinary citizens, agencies are ruthless and inflexible when it comes to enforcement, giving us a false sense of security that our environment is really protected from abuses by corporations and some very influential individuals, but the reality is much different. As a result, we have some serious environmental problems in our wetlands. Invasive plant species are very problematic and have often been brought here with the blessing of our government. Examples include Salvinia spp. brought into the country decades ago for use in water gardens, the many species of submerged aquatics brought to the U.S. by corporations for use in aquariums, and water hyacinth. All of these plants create a thick, soup-like situation that has recently gotten so bad that canoeing in the Basin in late spring and summer may be a thing of the past. Invasive plants are so numerous that they choke themselves out; as they rot away they create a "sour bottom", depleting the water of oxygen. Canals and spoil banks, created with the approval of our state and federal agencies, make things even worse, stopping water currents and causing the water to become stagnant. This year, the flood is cleaning up the Basin, washing away some invasive plants and killing others. The sour bottoms are being covered by a layer of mineral sediments, increasing water quality for years to come. Water runs deep over most spoil banks in the Basin. Deep, oxygen-rich water is a boon for fish and crawfish, restoring some of the productivity of the Atchafalaya Basin. Birds like cormorants, anhingas, egrets, ibises, storks, ducks and herons will benefits from the increased fish and crawfish populations for years to come. New wetlands will be created as the Atchafalaya Delta grows, thanks to the tons of sediment carried by the waters of this exceptionally large flood. Cypress and tupelo trees will grow healthier thanks to the new nutrient-rich sediment brought by the flood.

THE BAD:
The Atchafalaya Basin's swamps once reached all the way to Simmesport, LA. Excessive sediments, mismanagement by the Corps and the state of Louisiana, and oil and gas industry canals have created extensive upland areas within the Basin. Today, the upper part of the Atchafalaya Basin is mainly farmland, and the middle is mainly bottomland hardwood forest. Our remaining cypress-tupelo swamps, the most productive and important wetlands on the continent and one of the natural wonders of America, are disappearing under tons of Mississippi River sediments. The Corps is accelerating the process by trying to divert 65% of the Mississippi River sediment load into the Atchafalaya Basin. If you look at a satellite picture of the Basin you can see mini-deltas spreading everywhere inside the spillway like a cancer, forever filling in our beloved cypress-tupelo swamps. The flood brings with it huge amounts of new sediments. More sediments means the loss of more of our valuable, inland forested wetlands and a decrease in the water depth of many sloughs, bayous and lakes, forever diminishing the quality and quantity of aquatic habitat. While this flood should be a blessing for our wetlands and the coast, it is going to be a nightmare for thousands of deer, rabbits, bobcats, coyotes, armadillos and a few bears that will drown because of the flood. Fishermen are reporting armadillos on top of floating logs, slowly starving to death. I found two drowned armadillos myself. I also saw a rabbit shaking under a bush just one foot above water, by now the rabbit will have drowned. I once hunted lots of rabbits to feed my family, but that sight brought me deep sorrow. The flood came at the worst possible time-breeding season for birds; most prothonotary warbler nests as well as thousands of nests of other bird species in the Atchafalaya Basin have been wiped out by the rising water. Because of us humans, most neo-tropical species of birds are already in decline-this flood will put an additional strain on some of those populations. The levees and impoundments have created death traps for mammals and birds. Before we leveed the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, water would spread out over millions of acres of floodplain and would not have been much more than an increased blessing for everything.

THE UGLY:
On May 11 we went on a pre-flood inspection of oil facilities in the Atchafalaya Basin and came across the ultimate bad oil company, WLE. The first thing we found was a possible non-permitted dredging operation and the oil facility from hell. The first oil facility was a well and some oil tanks on a floating barge. The barge was covered in oil, in places half an inch thick, and had leaking pipes, rusty tanks and pieces of dirty pipes everywhere. WLE is an old acquaintance of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper (ABK). In 2009 WLE built an unpermitted dam, blocking fresh water to thousands of acres of wetlands and finally removed the dam after ABK complained to the pipeline owner and the Corps.









The next site was not much better, with oil stains all over the place, rags stuffed inside pipes and oil in the water.







May 23, 2011: ABK and Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper (LMRK) Paul Orr did a joint flight over the Mississippi River and the Atchafalaya Basin. As we flew over the Basin we discovered two fairly large oil spills, one in the Lake Verret Oil Field and the second in the Bayou Sorrel Shell Oil Field.


Flight courtesy of Southwings (www.southwings.org). Pilot Dan Luke.


Flight courtesy of Southwings (www.southwings.org). Pilot Dan Luke.

We also discovered that the barge with the tanks full of oil, belonging to WLE, was underwater.


Flight courtesy of Southwings (www.southwings.org). Pilot Dan Luke.

The following day ABK paid a visit by boat to the sunken WLE facility and we found floating barrels and tanks, a chaotic situation at the site. Obviously all of the oil on top of the barge was now in the water.







There are two other oil companies working in the area and visiting their oil facilities was truly a rewarding experience for me. It also shows that there is no excuse to operate the way WLE operates. The first company was Goldking Energy. Notice in the photos that everything is neat, anything that can float is secured, and they have multiple fire extinguishers.







The tanks are not on a barge, but a fixed platform, which is why they are under water.

The third company is SandRidge. Notice that the decks are spotless, everything is neat and secure, and there is no oil anywhere.









We are considering giving Goldking and SandRidge awards for their responsible behavior.