Diminishing wetlands caught Southeastern scientists

HAMMOND- The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Research Program started by scientists at Southeastern Louisiana University in 2001, has been monitoring the rapid decline in Louisiana’s wetlands in search for ways to restore these unique lands.

“What’s important about wetlands for the standpoint of humans is that they serve as protective buffers to storm surge,” said Dr. Nick Norton, professor of biological science at Southeastern and director of PBRP. “Wetlands are critical in protecting people in Louisiana from hurricanes.”

PBRP dedicates their research to the restoration and sustainability of cypress ecosystems in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin. Louisiana’s wetlands have served as a storm surge for the coast, but according to Dr. Norton, over the past years these lands have experienced degradation due to human activity, logging, saltwater intrusion and  man-made levees along the Mississippi River that have contributed to this downward spiral.

Dr. Robert Moreau, field manager/ director of the program, has been a part of the team since it started in 2001 and is intrigued with how interconnected everything is in the ecosystem.

“This is research that is very important because it is based on science, and it is in an area that is very important to the southeastern community,” said Moreau. “It is our backyard.”

Scientists and professors at the university conduct classes out in the field to give students a realization of the conditions in these wetlands.

“Our program also has an outreach/education component that is designed to inform teachers in the area through interactive workshops about the importance of the wetlands to the economy and culture of southeastern Louisiana,” said Norton.

Turtle Cove, their research station, is located on the North Pass, a five mile waterway connecting Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas. The research program is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a committee made up of the director of Lake Pontchartrain Basin, Wildlife and Fisheries and the federal agency. Scientists from Southeastern, Tulane University and UNO research and respond to put together grant proposals that address the mission they want analyzed.

“The big one is the degradation of the wetlands over time,” said Norton. “So we’re really interested in restoration in the wetlands and re-establish the cypress trees.”

The wetlands in southeast Louisiana have been deteriorating for a long time and there are several factors that influence this. Norton said one of the main issues is the levees built along the Mississippi River.  During the spring, after the snow has melted, the river overflows, flooding neighboring areas. 

“This was bad for humans but good for wetlands because it was loaded with sediments,” said Norton. “So when they started building levees along the river to prevent flooding, it was a serious issue regarding the wetlands.”

According to the research conducted by PBRP, another major factor is the petro chemical industries who dredge in canals to run pipelines for exploration, which allows saltwater to seep into the wetlands, causing the death of many vegetation and cypress seedlings.

“There have been several things that are man-made that have contributed to the degradation of the wetlands,” said Norton.

One of their main ongoing projects is to look at the feasibility of using the water that is pumped out of treatment plants in Hammond to allow the flow of nutrients, such as phosphates and nitrates to enhance restoration. Norton implied this study is working pretty well.

Studies like this takes time, said Norton, but there has been a lot of research conducted and they all have their own reasons and objections for the study and contributing to data collection. 

“The Manchac/Maurepas swamps probably don’t have much hope for long term survival if we don’t get fresh water, sediments, and water with nutrients back into them,” said Moreau.

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