Saving Atchafalaya

A more than 70-year effort to "control" America's largest river basin swamp is threatening the Cajun culture that thrives on it

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In the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, thousands of dispossessed people turned to the swamp for survival, at last penetrating its deepest recesses. The “swampers” killed, cut and collected anything that could be sold. Hordes of pickers pulled mats of Spanish moss from trees with hooked wooden poles. After curing outside in huge heaps, the moss was baled, ginned and peddled for as little as a penny a pound as mattress and upholstery stuffing. Muskrats and gators were trapped and shot for their hides. Fishing became a big business, and hunters shipped a quarter-million ducks to New Orleans some years.

Little by little, local settlements grew. By the mid-1870s, one of the largest towns, Bayou Chene, boasted a population of 450 and several saloons. In the early 1900s, houseboats and motors increased the swampers’ range, and by the early 1930s, nearly 1,000 full-time fishermen were dropping their lines and nets in the Atchafalaya. Perhaps twice as many parttimers headed for the bayous after toiling all day in sugar cane fields or on cattle ranches.

There was almost no limit, it seemed, to the ways a resourceful person might survive. In summer, for example, many a swamper collected snapping-turtle eggs from bayou banks where turtles nested, frequently in the company of gators. “First you had to slide them gators out,” recalls Raymond Sedotal, a 79-year-old Cajun from Pierre Part. “Most of the time they’d sleep, but if they woke up, then, boy you had somethin’.”

Water, the lifeblood of the swamp, proved its undoing. In 1927, a historic flood poured through the lower Mississippi River valley, inundating 16 million acres in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, destroying 41,000 buildings and killing hundreds. In the Basin’s main river, also called the Atchafalaya, floodwaters rose seven feet above its natural levees. Swamp residents threw together log rafts for their livestock, then fled. According to local legend, a goat left stranded in the Methodist church at Bayou Chene survived for weeks on hymnals and wallpaper.

Under intense political pressure to prevent a repeat of that catastrophe, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—which by law is charged with dredging harbors, managing dams and keeping the nation’s rivers under control—came up with a mind-boggling scheme: to transform the entire Atchafalaya Basin from a sponge that absorbed floodwaters into an emergency valve that flushed them out. Whenever Old Man River went on the rampage, the reconstituted swamp would move water downstream quickly.

Since 1928, the Corps has spent almost $2 billion on flood control in the Basin, including enclosing more than a halfmillion acres of swamp with 450 miles of levees. Dozens of natural bayous have also been sealed off, and more than 100 million cubic yards of earth have been dredged. Ahuge concrete structure built at the junction of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers enables the Corps to divert some of the Mississippi into the Basin. That’s good for Baton Rouge, New Orleans and the dozens of chemical plants crowding the Mississippi’s lower banks because it means less flooding during times of high water. But the reengineered Basin no longer retains the water it needs to survive; instead it is flushed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil and gas development have only made matters worse. Beginning in the 1940s, hundreds of miles of pipelines and navigation canals were punched through the Basin’s woods and across its swamplands, interfering with natural water flow and trapping huge piles of sediment. Lakes shriveled, wetlands began drying up and, in many areas of the Basin, crawfish harvests declined.

What corn is to Iowa and the lobster to Maine, the crawfish has become to Louisiana—not just a lucrative cash crop but a state symbol as well. The lowly crustacean’s improbable rise to culinary stardom is of relatively recent vintage. In the 1940s, Cajun restaurateurs began experimenting with tasty dishes featuring boiled crawfish, and in no time at all crawfish became wildly popular with natives and visitors alike. Soon every boat in the Basin big enough to hold a four-foot wire crawfish trap was being pressed into service.

After crawfish farming in man-made ponds started up in the 1960s, Louisiana’s overall annual harvest typically rose to about 80 million pounds. In just two years of harvesting wild crawfish during the 1970s, swamper Roy Blanchard made enough money to build a house and pay cash for a new truck.

Mike Bienvenu started crawfishing commercially in the swamp right after he graduated from high school in St. Martinville in 1973. At that time and throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, he recalls, “It was nothing to catch 2,000 pounds of crawfish in a day.” But before long the combined effect of all the levee building and canal digging began to take its toll. Last year the wild crawfish harvest was down to about 14 million pounds, half the average annual catch. Although Mike and Alice continue to set out more than 1,000 traps at a time, their daily catch has dwindled to less than 600 pounds. “The natural crawfish habitat is ever-shrinking,” says Tulane’s Oliver Houck. “It’s impounded, it’s silting up.”

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