Gaining Ground: A look at the Wax Lake Delta

Posted at 7:04 AM, Aug 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-26 08:04:00-04

It is no secret that the Louisiana coast is disappearing, and disappearing fast.

Almost all along the coast dry ground is in retreat, a combination of subsidence, erosion and sea level rise.

While most of the coastline fades, however, a small river delta is expanding and is one of the few places where land is being naturally created.

The mouth of the Wax Lake Delta where new sandbars are beginning to emerge.

The delta is at the end of the Wax Lake Outlet, a diversion that was cut in the 1940s to prevent the Atchafalaya River from flooding Morgan City.

After flooding in 1973 that diversion started to build land, a result of a massive sediment deposit that was dropped from the floods.

Since then the wetlands have been expanding, as sediment laden water continues to flow through the outlet and deposits that sediment onto the sandbars that are found at the edge of the delta.

Over time that sediment builds up and is colonized by grasses, canes, and eventually even trees which allows for more stable ground.

Mature marsh that wasn't there a few decades ago, an example of the building power of the Wax Lake Outlet.

This was how Louisiana was built until the 1920s, when the control of the Mississippi River robbed the coast of that sediment and the state started to sink.

Since the Wax Lake Delta is building naturally it gives researchers a chance to study the processes that lead to land growth along the state, and a chance to try and replicate that process.

Two major river diversions have been proposed along the Mississippi River with the hopes that engineers can create this same land-building process in other parts of the state that are quickly giving way to the Gulf of Mexico.

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The creation of these marshes mean more than just land growth, however; it's a benefit to biodiversity in the area and could ultimately lead to more productive fisheries.

"I'm actually convinced that our productivity is going to go up. Because we harness more of the energy that the river brings, we're going to have more seafood, more wildlife, more abundance of wealth. The wealth comes from the river," said David Muth, a member of the Mississippi River Campaign.

These deltas offer shelter for baby fish, shrimp, crabs and other marine life which means in the long run we could see healthier populations of the kind of species so many people depend on to make a living.

" Because we harness more of the energy that the river brings, we're going to have more seafood, more wildlife more abundance of wealth. The wealth comes from the river."
David Muth

The marsh then becomes a vital corridor for migrating birds who are looking for a place to rest and eat, which means better game for hunters like Kirk Songy, who has seen the marsh change over the years.

"When I first started coming down here that was back in the 80s and 90s and you used to not have as much land as you have down here now," Songy said pointing out new areas of land that weren't there even a decade ago.

And the healthier the marsh, the more protection coastal communities will get from hurricanes, as they act like speed bumps for approaching storms.

A look down the Wax Lake Outlet near Morgan City

In other areas these hurricanes are exasperating an already dire problem, eroding away the little bits of coast we have left, but that hasn't been the case at the Wax Lake Delta.

Since the area constantly sees sediment it's able to withstand and bounce back from approaching storms.

"It grows at about a square mile every single year. We have seen things like storms some through and they do impact the Wax Lake Delta and you'll see on satellite imagery it'll look more skeletal but then it bounces back, because you have the constant flow of sediment," said Dr. Alisha Renfro, one of the researchers studying the delta.

"Everywhere in Louisiana you're seeing retreat, you're seeing the Gulf of Mexico win the battle, eroding the marshes. Except here."
David Muth

The Wax Lake Delta is a prime example of nature fixing itself, a demonstration that if we stay out of the way or help it along we can undo some of the damage we've caused.

"Everywhere in Louisiana you're seeing retreat, you're seeing the Gulf of Mexico win the battle, eroding the marshes. Except here," said Muth, as he looks out over the edge of Louisiana and into the Gulf of Mexico.

It's a place where land is created, not destroyed, and a place where there's a sliver of hope in a story that offers so little.

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