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Will Alligators Return to the Central Wetlands?
49K activists from across the country have made restoration a real possibility.
New Orleans’ Central Wetlands were once a flourishing cypress swamp, home to a dizzying array of fish and wildlife, including alligators and hundreds of species of migrating birds. An easy drive from downtown, the Central Wetlands were also a haven for locals, who often hunted or fished for food in its waters.
Today the Central Wetlands are an open expanse of saltwater, punctuated only by the stumps of dead cypress trees.
Over the past fifty years, approximately 1000 square miles of habitats were damaged or destroyed by a shipping channel known as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO).
Worse still, during Hurricane Katrina, the MRGO funneled storm surge into large areas in and around New Orleans, dramatically increasing the devastation from the storm.
In Katrina’s wake, Congress ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—who built and operated the channel—to come up with a plan to restore the damaged habitats. Incredibly, the Corps was openly considering ignoring Congress and taking no further action towards restoration.
But thanks to almost 49,000 emails from activists across the country, today the fate of the Central Wetlands and other habitats damaged by the MRGO is looking a little brighter.
A new report by the Corps’ Chief of Engineers, published early last week, recommends moving forward on a $3 billion plan to restore wetlands damaged or destroyed by the construction and operation of the
Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.
This news was greeted enthusiastically in New Orleans. Locals know that wetlands—particularly cypress forests—can help protect communities by buffering storm surge.
There are still obstacles to implementation: The Corps and the State of Louisiana are mired in a cost-sharing dispute that looks likely to hold up the restoration plan for at least the near future.
But the urgent need for restoration ought to transcend the cost-sharing issue. The MRGO plan—now more than four years behind Congress’ deadline—is critical to restoring the wetlands and wildlife habitats damaged by the canal.
NWF and our partners in the MRGO Must Go coalition have offered other major recommendations to the Corps, including prioritizing the 19 projects in the MRGO restoration that are also recommended in Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan.
We’ve also recommended that the Corps expedite the Violet Freshwater Diversion, a project that will bring freshwater from the Mississippi River into the Central Wetlands and help to rebuild the lost marshes and cypress swamps while controlling salinity. These measures will ultimately lead to better resilience in the face of hurricanes—and will help the city adapt to sea level rise.