Saturday, January 24, 2009

I made it a habit to get all of, or at least the majority of, my daily reading done in the very early hours of Saturday mornings, before my "Young Executive's Jog". This morning was largely no different. I typically strut through the WSJ, the Financial Times, a couple of metro dailies, and--yes, of course--the Houma Courier. While it might have been easy for me to be much more fixated on all of the news about the economy, or even the continuous (and often tabloid-like) coverage of President Barack Obama, I found myself stunned and re-reading a very different kind of article. It was one from back home.

A peculiar thing is happening in one of the lower enclaves of Terrebonne Parish: the water is turning orange. Yuh, orange! Now, maybe people have seen this before--particularly if they have spent anytime in Mississippi, where the creeks and gravel are this color--but this is quite uncommon to Terrebonne Parish, where the waterways are a murky and muddy brown, thanks to the tributaries of the Mississippi River. Well, for some uncanny reason, the water in one part of my home parish turning orange now...

According to the article, DEQ researchers are certain that the phenomenon is a consequence of dying marsh vegetation, which allegedly releases LARGE deposits of iron in the water system. Well, when I read that, I was immediately thunderstruck--so much so, in fact, I had to re-read the article a second time, just to make sure I did not misinterpret anything. Needless to say, I am still floored by this assessment.

In fact, as I sit here, writing this post on a Saturday night, I have to ask four questions that have obviously escaped the attention of some very educated people down there.

  1. How much of the marshland has to be dead or dying in order for the waters of even one canal to turn orange? Given that the marsh vegetation has been on the brink for more than a generation, and yet there has never been any similar impact on waterways before this time--wouldn't this new phenomenon portend an alarming acceleration in the loss of marsh vegetation? And given that it is concentrated in one canal, wouldn't that vegetation loss be easy to identify geographically?
  2. What could be killing the marshlands so quickly and with such a wholesale impact? Is this really a result of saltwater intrusion, or could it be related to something fungal? While DEQ seems to believe that Hurricane Ike dealt the marshlands a killer blow, it appears that locals who have lived through other hurricanes are saying that they have never seen this phenomenon before...And just for the sake of it, let's assume that DEQ is right. On that premise, why are the effects of the storm, which occurred in September, still playing out today? Why weren't canals in New Orleans East or St. Bernard or even Cameron full of orange water after their own tidal inundations from a storm like Hurricane Katrina? Or why would this same thing not have happened after Hurricane Juan or other tropical events that impacted lower Terrebonne?
  3. The DEQ representative quoted in the following article said that he would not drink the orange water, but he also implied that people should remember that this water is found in a drainage canal. (Terrebonne's residents get their drinking water from Bayou Lafourche.) Therefore, it should pose no direct problem to humans. Well, that's a relief...almost. What about livestock, though? How will this phenomenon impact the animals in this largely rural area?
  4. Is the excessive iron oxide a threat to other plant life? If so, would that make this a perpetuating cycle of vegetative destruction? And more importantly, how can it be stopped before more of the marshlands are threatened?

I am not easily inclined to take DEQ at its word without a good bit of empirical evidence and reams of solid facts, all of which I hope they did accumulate in their studies. And while I am no scientist, their explanation for this phenomenon just does not seem to add up. Presuming their assessment is valid, I am very unnerved by the fact that there can still be so many questions than answers at this point--questions that, mind you, warrant the attention of everyone in Terrebonne Parish, not just those living near the canal, if this is really the problem they say it is.

It would seem to me that, in a place where the topography is so fragile, and yet so vital, a much more deliberate and purposeful sense of priority would be given by leaders and experts to understanding a phenomenon that really has no precedence. That does not seem to be the case, though, and I find that very unsurprising. After all, it is not that I believe this to be anything remotely "other-worldly". I am just unconvinced that DEQ has this assessment correct, and other leaders and experts know it. In fact, I think somebody is covering something else up and figuring that it is better to misinform the locals than face the truth.


Dying marsh may be to blame for orange water

Nikki BuskeyStaff Writer
Published: Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.

MONTEGUT — Dying wetlands in the Pointe-aux-Chenes area are likely responsible for the bright-orange water in a southern Terrebonne canal, state scientists say.

Montegut and Pointe-aux-Chenes residents were concerned that the tinged water, which stained homes, rocks, trees and anything else it touched, could be dangerous. The canal runs under La. 665, the highway that connects Montegut with Pointe-aux-Chenes.

Several of them, including Herdis Neil of Montegut, contacted The Courier for help earlier this month because they said parish officials ignored their pleas for help.

Department of Environmental Quality scientists spent the last two weeks investigating -- conducting a battery of tests and using aircraft flyovers to determine the water's source. The scientists say the water doesn't pose a danger to humans.

"I wouldn't drink it, but then it's a drainage ditch," said Pat Breaux, of the Department of Environmental Quality's surveillance division. "There should be no contact issues for humans."

The discoloration is the result of high levels iron oxide in the water, Breaux said, likely due to dying marshes that drain into the canal. Breaux said he suspects saltwater pushed inland by Hurricane Ike's surge is to blame for the dead marsh.

As the marsh grasses die, iron in the wetlands' soil is released and exposed to oxygen, causing the orange-red color that alarmed residents.

"If this is related to marsh dieback it means where ever that source is, the vegetation has died," said Andrew Barron, water-quality coordinator with the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. "When it rains, it washes those iron minerals from the soil into the canal."

Because the marsh that drains into the canal is surrounded by levees, Breaux said, the iron-rich water is concentrated in that waterway, making the color change more intense.

Though pump stations send the discolored water into Bayou Terrebonne or the Pointe-aux-Chenes Wildlife Management Area, Breaux said he doesn't anticipate that causing additional problems.

"Bayou Terrebonne is a large body of water," Breaux said, explaining the small amount of contaminated water from the canal is mixed with the large amount of untainted water in the bayou and ceases to become noticeable. "Dissolution is the solution."

Department of Environmental Quality officials in New Orleans have seen the same water-discoloration after marsh deaths there, Breaux said. Experts aren't certain that marsh death is to blame, but Breaux said it's the likely scenario.

"When we flew over the area, we were hoping that we could see where it was coming from and find the smoking gun," Breaux said. "But the source, it seemed, was the marsh itself."

Neil said that while he's happy an investigation determined the water isn't dangerous, he's not convinced that the marsh could have caused this problem.

"I might have believed (dying marsh is the cause) if I hadn't lived here all my life. I been back there fishing, hunting nutria, catching crawfish," Neil said. "I'm not a scientist, but I'm going to tell you that's not the cause."

Neil said he thinks the cause might be red clay exposed during construction of a levee in Pointe-aux-Chenes.

"It's not harmful to people, and I'm glad to know that, but I hope they keep looking until they find the real source," Neil said.

1 comment:

mike carson said...

Damn, Gary. You really know how to make a hotbox. I would hate to be presenting something to you and have you tear it apart. Just so you know though you are right. I don't think dead plants are their problem. But if people believe that BS then they have even bigger problems in Houma than the orange water.

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