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For Lack Of Mississippi Silt, The Gulf Is Losing Coastal Land


On Thursday, a federal judge in New Orleans lowered the boom on the oil giant BP. He ruled that BP was grossly negligent for the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 and sent oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for three months. Five states were directly affected by the spill. Louisiana took a direct hit. But the BP disaster was only the latest environmental crisis to affect its shores. Louisiana's coastline has been disappearing over the past century, thousands of acres now underwater. For local communities, it means a way of life is disappearing along with the wetlands.

Fishing guide Ryan Lambert joins us from his fishing lodge on the lower Mississippi Delta in Louisiana to tell us more about what's happening there. Good to have you with us, Ryan.

RYAN LAMBERT: Good morning. How are you?

NEARY: Good, thanks. Now I know you've been fishing in this area for more than 30 years. Tell me, first of all, what was it like back then when you first started fishing?

LAMBERT: There was a lot more land. You'd have to navigate from one bayou to another bay, all the way until you hit the Gulf of Mexico, 6.3 miles from the dock. Now today, you could turn your boat towards the Gulf Mexico and never hit a piece of land. It's all gone. It's 6.3 miles of land completely gone.

NEARY: Wow. Now as that was happening, Ryan, were you aware that it was happening? When did you become aware that the land was really changing?

LAMBERT: You could see it on a daily basis. It would sink or disappear. Islands that you fish would be gone the next season. And over 34 years of guiding, it really takes a toll to see it happen. I've really become passionate about coastal restoration ever since.

NEARY: I was going to ask if you and other people started really questioning what was going on and why it was going on and investigating it.

LAMBERT: Well, you know, everybody always knew that it was happening, but no one really knew and paid enough attention to it to get a big sense of how to fix it. After the '27 flood, the great flood of the Mississippi River, they built all these levees and shut off the sediment and freshwater to our estuary. Therefore, saltwater will come in and kill all the freshwater species of grasses and trees. And the next time the tide would come, it would sink away into the tide. And then the oil companies came, and they started putting their pipelines. And that just accelerated the issue because it let the salt water come inside even quicker. But there's nothing to replace it because the life-sustaining sediment and fresh water from the Mississippi that overflowed every spring no longer exists.

NEARY: How has that changed the way of life there?

LAMBERT: Well, you know, where I fish right here, you can go out, and if you get on your GPS, you can see where the old bayous used to be. You can see where these camps used to be. People were born and raised in those camps. That was a way of life. Everyone in Louisiana, you know, had a camp to go to. Either they lived there and they trapped, and they hunted, and they fished out of them. Now it's skeletons, just pilings out in the open water. It's a whole heritage lost. We've lost 2,000 square miles of land in Louisiana in the last 90 years. That's the size of Delaware. If the state of Delaware just dropped off into the ocean, you think anybody would notice?

NEARY: Well, how concerned are people getting now about it? I mean, are people starting to organize and...

LAMBERT: Well, the state's got a coastal master plan. And it's a 50 year, $50-billion pipedream if we don't have the funding for it. We will get some from the Restore Act and the BP fines from their Clean Water Act that will come here. And if we use it wisely, we can start getting this done. You know, we know we can't save everything, but we're going to have to pick and choose what we can save because for every mile of marsh you have between the gulf and civilization, that knocks the storm surge of a hurricane down one foot.

Hurricane Katrina caused $120 billion worth of damage. So that was - what? - 7, 8 years ago? It's probably six times worse with the lack of marsh to protect them now than it was when Katrina happened. It's just a matter of time, just one hurricane away - we will no longer be able to inhabit this area, and that goes for New Orleans as well. People that live in the city, they're so disconnected with Mother Nature. They live their lives, but they don't know what's outside there lurking, if you will.

NEARY: What about levees? I mean, levees play a role in this, and yet levees are very protective in that area. I mean, you have a levy near your house. You wouldn't want that taken down would you?

LAMBERT: You cannot have protection without restoration because if these waves are banging on the levy, it's going to break. It's going to breach. You have to have something on the other side of these levees in which to break these waves and energy down for that levy to maintain a level. And that's what we're learning now. And it's a learning process, and we're going to learn. But we have to really do it quick 'cause our lives literally depend on it in this area.

NEARY: Ryan Lambert is a fishing guide in Buras, Louisiana. Ryan, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LAMBERT: You're very welcome. Thank you for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.