Swamps thrive on the seasonal rise and fall of water, a critical natural cycle for the flora and fauna in the Atchafalaya Basin.
But over the years, floodwaters from the Atchafalaya River have dumped piles of sediment that gum up the works of the vast swamp, and the man-made embankments along the canals and the pipelines that crisscross the Basin serve as dams, keeping the water from flowing as it should.
A new project pulling together federal, state and private resources aims to give the swamp a fresh start.
“We’re just trying to fix the plumbing,” said James Bergan, director of freshwater and wetlands for The Nature Conservancy.
The conservation group on Thursday announced a partnership with the state Department of Natural Resources for a restoration project on and around about 5,300 acres the conservancy acquired earlier this year in the Bayou Sorrel area, mostly in Iberville Parish.
“It’s incumbent on us to make the Basin a better functioning place,” said Keith Ouchley, director of The Nature Conservancy of Louisiana.
About $3.5 million has been raised for land acquisition, restoration work and research to measure the environmental impact, Bergan said.
The money has been pooled from federal and state funds and a $1.6 million contribution from Shell Oil; an agreement between The Nature Conservancy and DNR allows the conservation group to use state restoration funds as a match to secure larger private and federal grants for Basin restoration work.
The first major project in that partnership is at the conservancy’s Atchafalaya Basin Preserve in the Bayou Sorrel area.
The restoration plan is relatively straightforward: Work crews will use heavy equipment to shave down and cut gaps in embankments and to clean out clogged areas so water can resume its natural north-to-south flow through the swamp.
“It doesn’t take much to slow water down in that flat country,” said Bryan Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science for the conservancy.
He said researchers are preparing baseline assessments of the health of the swamp and will return after the project to measure the impact on forest growth, water quality and wildlife, including crawfish — a key link in the Basin food chain for birds and fish and a resource that puts food on the table for the families of Basin crawfishermen.
The research will help shape future restoration efforts, Piazza said.
Bergan said The Nature Conservancy plans to build a small research base in the Bayou Sorrel area and is eyeing future land acquisitions.
“Ideally, we would like to build out our preserve to about 10,000 acres,” he said.
The Nature Conservancy has long had an interest in the Basin and began work a few years ago to synthesize past research on the swamp to lay the groundwork for focused restoration efforts.