Flying over Gulf Marshes: The Spill Is Vast, the Booms Are Small

I learned a new word on my first day on the Louisiana Gulf Coast: marshballs. Flying over what used to be vast stretches of marshland, our pilot said that after decades of blocking the Mississippi River from releasing more sediment into the wetlands and years of dredging canals for oil exploration, thousands of acres of marshes had eroded and been transformed into broken marsh or open water.

Then Hurricane Katrina came along and rolled the remaining pieces into marshballs—tiny little islands of grass that barely rise above the surface.

Looking down at the so-called marshballs, I realized just how damaged and vulnerable the coast was—even before the BP blowout sent millions of gallons of oil flowing into the Gulf.

Now the area is being pounded by the worst environmental disaster in history. And yet the primary line of defense being used for the remaining marshlands—booms to block the oil—hardly seem up to the critical task of protecting this fragile ecosystem.

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There’s nothing like seeing it firsthand to drive these realities home.

We started our day by meeting with a representative from SEEDCO, a nonprofit that helps finance businesses and other nonprofits in distressed areas, such as post-Katrina Louisiana. She told us about the energy fishermen have to rebuild their businesses—if they are given the chance.  

We then boarded a seaplane for a flyover of the spill, but thunderstorms had rolled in and we were unable to get all the way out to the drill site.

But visiting the region in stormy conditions was revealing. Most of the images we see of the spill show placid waters. Today we saw fairly big waves even in the protected waters of Barataria Bay, and we were told there were seven-foot swells out in the Gulf. When even just one- to two-foot waves hit the booms, the oil oil jumped right over them and headed toward the marshes. Later we heard that to make matters worse, the dispersants being used kept much of the oil below the surface so that it went right under the booms onto the marsh shores.  

From the airplane window, I was struck by how vast the oil spill is and how thin the boom is.

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As we were flying, our pilot Mark described the dramatic changes that have occurred in the marshlands over past decades. Over many decades, energy companies have dredged enormous canals in order to bring oil exploration and drilling into the marshes. As the oil was sucked out, the land began to subside, and the canals allowed salt water to infiltrate into fresh water areas, killing the grasses. Once the grass died, the dirt started slipping away. “It’s become pockmarked,” the pilot said, “You see more water than marsh.”

Mark held up a map and pointed to the area around Buras, a town in Plaquemines Parish. The map showed land on the west side of the Mississippi River, but Mark said most of that land wasn’t there anymore—it had eroded away and was now underwater.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi River has been diverted for more than 50 years, and marshes aren’t getting the sediment they need to replenish themselves. Engineers are starting to release more river water, mostly to the east, and we could see from the plane how this was helping the marshlands get built up again. But that remains the exception.

In the past few months, when I have looked on Google Earth to get a view of the Gulf Coast, I never really understood what I was seeing—the mixture of water and marsh, missing chunks of land and newly formed islands—was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was only from the plane that I finally started to grasp how this extraordinary region.

Many factors have conspired o reshape the Louisiana Coast, and most of them have cast a long shadow—whether it’s the oil canals or the impacts of Katrina.

After we landed, we headed south to Buras, where NRDC is opening a Gulf Resource Center with our local partners. The road took us along a levee for the Mississippi River, and I had the odd sensation of watching large ships sail by on a river that was higher than our car.

In a place where the roads are below sea-level and the oil industry has eaten away at the marshes for decades, you realize that a thin line of booms isn’t going to be enough to protect it from the latest catastrophe.


(Photos by NRDC, on Flickr)