BARATARIA PRESERVE, La. (AP) — In the heyday of oil exploration on Louisiana’s coast after World War II, companies dug about 10,000 miles of canals as straight as Kansas highways through a natural world that’s unraveling today — due, in part, to those canals.
Soon, about 16.5 miles of canals are to be filled in the Barataria Preserve — making a small dent in a massive problem.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Monday toured water plant-choked canals in the alligator-and-bird preserve by airboat and called the work crucial; she said filling in open canals can help fend off the Gulf of Mexico and its hurricanes.
“It can have an impact, not just restoring the National Park site, but also on buffering these communities from the impacts of climate change, sea level rise, of increasing storms.”
The National Park Service is using $8.7 million from penalties drawn from the catastrophic BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 to do the work. The Barataria Preserve, established in 1978, lies about 10 miles southwest of New Orleans.
Long ago, oil companies abandoned the canals and spoil banks. Scientists say they have interfered with hydrology — trapping water in places and keeping water from flowing properly in others — and funneled salt water inland. Also, canals have widened and eroded the landscape.
The canals have long been considered a major problem for Louisiana’s coast, which experiences some of the fastest rates of land loss in the world. The state loses about 17 square miles of land each year — an area not that much smaller than Manhattan — and has lost about 1,900 square miles since the 1930s, an area the size of Delaware.
Restoring hydrology is critical, said Dusty Pate, the National Park Service’s natural resource program manager on the preserve.
“It’s the action of the river that created this entire landscape, and water movement out across the landscape is very important. The primary thing that you’re trying to do is remove barriers to (water) exchange,” he said as he surveyed the banks along the Gulf South Pipeline Canal. “It’s super, super flat and normally the way the water would move is in a big sheet or in a small natural channel.”
He added: “By taking down the spoil banks and shallowing out the canal we can’t necessarily restore all of that function, but we can do good things for sure.”
He said plans call for pushing the trees — many of which are invasive Chinese tallow trees — and brush along the spoil banks into the canal. Trees with value, such as cypress and oaks, would likely be kept, he said.
The canals won’t be filled in completely — simply because there’s not enough dirt in the spoil banks to do that, Pate said. But over time, they are expected to gradually become shallower and shallower.
Julie Whitbeck, a National Park Service ecologist, said the work to fill in the canals would be a model for future projects to backfill canals.
The preserve has become a leader in filling canals, said Eugene Turner, a Louisiana State University coastal scientist. He was not on the tour, but has studied the canals for a long time. The preserve previously filled in about 5 miles of canals. In all, about 30 miles of canals across the Louisiana coast have been filled in, Turner said.
The question whether oil companies should be forced to pay for damage caused by the canals has long been contentious. The oil industry says it was not required to fill in canals, but others argue that they should be forced to pay for that work.
Three coastal parishes — the equivalent of counties in Louisiana — are suing dozens of oil canals over damage by the oil industry to the coast. Recently, Gov. John Bel Edwards got involved in the litigation and has sought to broker a settlement.