MIKE FOSTER: We find that live shrimp work much, much better. Once you put your thumb on it, don't release it. Picture yourself holdin' the line and then as you swing, you release it.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Mike Foster has been fishing here in Southern Louisiana for as long as he can remember.
MIKE FOSTER: Hold it down, don't release it... Very good.
DANIEL ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING FOSTER): And then what do I do?
ZWERDLING: A few years ago, Foster realized that something strange was going on… take a look at his GPS unit. This gadget shows a recent map of the area, and it uses satellites to show exactly where we are on that map.
According to the GPS right here, we're in a channel with land on both sides and a big, huge land mass over here, and it's not there. You can see that.
It's just completely open water. And according to the GPS unit, we've just driven up on land.
The GPS actually shows us crashing right through the middle of an island.
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING FOSTER):
So there should basically be a huge island right here.
That's correct, Beaureguard Island.
So what does that tell you?
That tells you Louisiana's losin' its coast.
ZWERDLING: Everybody who fishes here will tell you the same story: their world is washing away. We've all heard stories before about some beach eroding... But Louisiana's problem is dramatically different Foster says it could be a national disaster. And when Mike Foster gets worried, powerful people get worried. Because foster's not just another fisherman... he's the governor of Louisiana. And Foster's calling on the whole country to help solve this crisis.
It's hard to grasp the problem... Until you see it from the air. So I join a team of officials from the Pentagon and the state capital who want to see the crisis first-hand.
The pilot leaves New Orleans behind and heads south along the Mississippi... And suddenly... We're over the wetlands.
The wetlands of Louisiana are some of the greatest on Earth. Scientists say if we'd taken this trip fifty years ago, it would have looked like the great plains. We'd be gazing at a solid vista of green, stretching all the way to the horizon.
BILL GOOD: LOUISIANA DEPT OF NATURAL RESOURCES:
Sometimes its hard to convince people there's a problem, this looks like a nice gulf, but what they don't realize is that 10, 11 years ago it used to be a marsh.
ZWERDLING: When people talk about the marshes of Louisiana, when they talk about these wetlands, they tend to talk in hyperbole...because everything about them is huge. They stretch for 300 miles along the coast. They go up to 50 miles inland.
And scientists say they're an environmental wonder these wetlands produce more fish than any state except Alaska. Millions of migrating birds stop here, along their way.
But now this world is vanishing. Studies show that over the past 50 years, more than one thousand square miles of this state have crumbled and turned to open water .. That's like losing a football field ...every half an hour. It's like losing a region the size of Manhattan, every single year. Gone...
Just on an annual basis, 25-35 square miles of wetlands a year? That's a national catastrophe of the highest order… It's disappearing, in geologic time, overnight.
ZWERDLING: So why is a delta that was thriving for thousands of years suddenly unravelling? Since Denise Reed moved here from England, she's been trying to solve this mystery.
DENISE REED, GEOMORPHOLOGIST:
This is a world class coastal ecosystem. And it's in serious trouble. It's our only big system like this
Reed is a "geomorphologist." She's a leading scientist who studies wetlands. She says we're wading into the heart of a dying marsh.
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING REED):
Hold up, you're going too fast. I keep losing my sandal.
You all right?
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING REED):
I think so.
ZWERDLING: To an outsider, this wetland hardly looks like it's dying. I always assumed that a wetland is sloppy with water. But Reed says no, the term wetland, or marsh, just means land that gets flooded periodically. She says if this marsh were healthy, we could stroll across it like a field.
DENISE REED: When you just look at it now, it looks nice and green. It's a pretty day, It looks nice and healthy. We're standing here with grass up to our waists. But as we walk through it, we can tell that this is, by no means, a continuous cover of vegetation. We had to be very careful where we walked. I don't know how many times you fell in over your knees. But I fell in several times. It's full of holes.
And of course we're standing here right next to a pond. This is not a very big one. When you fly over coastal Louisiana, you can see that there are myriads of ponds that are very, very much bigger. And that's land loss. This is what coastal land loss is in Louisiana. Something that's a marsh with grass on turning to open water.
ZWERDLING: Reed says if you want to understand why it's falling apart, you have to look back in history, say, five thousand years.
DENISE REED: All of coastal Louisiana was built by the Mississippi River. This large area that we call the Delta millions of acres, was all built by the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi River is a giant funnel. It gathers soil from fields and mountains across a huge swath of North America. And then it delivers that dirt to Louisiana's door.
OLIVER HOUCK, PROFESSOR, TULANE LAW SCHOOL:
Every day the Mississippi River brings about a half million tons of silt. You can imagine what it would take in dump trucks to bring half a million tons of silt every day to south Louisiana.
ZWERDLING: Oliver Houck runs the environment program at Tulane University Law School.
It would take 200,000 dump trucks, every day, on the roads, bringing that soil in. The Mississippi River built five million acres of south Louisiana. It built 20,000 square miles of south Louisiana. It built everything you see between Texas and Mississippi and inland about 50 miles. All of that's care of and thanks to the Mississippi River.
ZWERDLING: After the river built these wetlands, it sustained them for thousands of years it stopped them from dropping into the sea.
This whole region is actually sinking a tiny bit, constantly. All that rich, heavy soil keeps compacting under its own weight. But every few years, the river would flood and gush over its banks and all that goo would spread across the landscape and build the wetlands back up.
Until the Europeans showed up.
The French came in about 1700. They find Louisiana in the fall, and they find it dry. And they find the site of New Orleans to be a good site to build and so they decide to build there. Of course the next spring it floods. So their answer to that is to build a little levee.
A little wall. And they built a little wall between their houses and the river. And that works for about a year, but then the river jumps the wall upstream and comes around behind the wall and hits the houses. So, they have to extend the wall upstream. And we've been extending that wall upstream for the next 300 years.
ZWERDLING: The US Army took over the job in the late 1800s and every time they thought they'd conquered nature, the Mississippi River proved them wrong. So the Army's Corps of Engineers built more walls, and they built them higher. It's been one of the biggest engineering projects in history. Today, the Army manages more than two thousand miles of levees, and they've finally won the war they've stopped the flooding in Louisiana.
And so the project was, from an engineering point of view, brilliant, brilliant. From an environmental standpoint, it was a disaster. And it was a disaster because all of that bed load, all of that material that had built south Louisiana for thousands of years, now was thrown away like a waste product into the deep Gulf. And Louisiana was poised like a patient in a hospital. It was put on a starvation diet. It wasn't killed it was just made weak and susceptible to attack. And in about the 1930's the attack came.
ZWERDLING: That 'attack' was the oil and gas boom. All the big companies flocked here. They ripped up the wetlands to get to the energy underneath.
This is an oil and gas canal. This is the kind of canal that the companies had to dredge through the marsh, to actually drill holes, to extract oil and gas. And so what happened is, they would come into an area. With a barge. With a dredge. A kind of bucket dredge, that would scoop up the dirt, scoop up the marsh, and pile up that dirt on one side. And gradually make a canal.
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING REED):
And-- how many of these are there in the wetlands?
There are thousands and thousands and thousands of these across coastal Louisiana. And these spoil banks. And they really alter the way the water flows in and out of the marsh. It's like having a wall through a wetland.
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING REED):
It reminds me of how people used to say that when you built a freeway right through the heart of a neighborhood in a city, the neighborhood would die.
Because people couldn't get from one side to the other.
It's that kind of analogy. Yeah. No, I think that's quite a good one.
ZWERDLING: Back then, hardly anybody realized the consequences and the whole country got the benefits. The companies sold us energy, the Army kept homes in Louisiana dry. But Reed says now we know the price: the wetlands are sinking into the Gulf.
This marsh cannot survive in this state much longer. It hasn't had any sustenance. It hasn't had any sediments from the Mississippi River . It has canals cut through it. It has all kinds of other things that people have done in it. And it's still there, as we see it on the other side, over here. But we don't think it's gonna be there for much longer.
ZWERDLING: Actually, a few scientists began warning about all this back in the 1960s, but nobody else seemed to care. Now that's changing because there's a new type of activist on the scene.
ROSWELL KING MILLING, PRESIDENT, WHITNEY NATIONAL BANK:
The bank is 119 years old and it was founded in New Orleans by the Whitney Family.
ZWERDLING: Roswell King Milling is one of the last people you'd expect to fight for the environment. He's president of the Whitney National Bank. Before he took over, he was a powerful lawyer for the oil and gas industry.
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING MILLING):
It's sort of wild to see on your desk a wildlife magazine! You're not embarrassed for your banker friends to see you with a wildlife magazine on your desk?
Well they'll just have to take me warts and all I guess.
ZWERDLING: Enviromentalists have tried for years to drum up interest in the wetlands by talking about biomass and waterfowl. But Milling says one day it suddenly hit him this isn't about the birds and the bees…the wetlands are about money!
If you look in the Houma area, there are numerous industries that are located up and down Highway One.
ZWERDLING: He says the Whitney and other banks have invested billions of dollars in a landscape that's crumbling.
And the when you get up here, you can begin to look at fabrication yards, shipbuilding yards, gas processing plants, chemical installations and the rest of it.
ZWERDLING: Milling says if the wetlands keep vanishing, the state's economy could wash away. So now, this banker is barnstorming around the state. He's preaching to power-brokers who'd never let an environmentalist through their door. And he's shouting "We've got to save the wetlands before it's too late."
A lot of debates in this country have pit the environment against the economy. But Milling says he's learned a lesson in Louisiana, at least, the environment is the economy.
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING MILLING):
You use words like "catastrophe coming, disaster coming." "Doom" is a word you use. Are these exaggerations? Hyperbole?
I'm always concerned that I am guilty of hyperbole. And I have waited patiently for someone to come in and look me in the eye and say, "Milling, you don't know what the hell you're talking about." That would be my happiest moment. The reality is no one's done that.
ZWERDLING: Milling says if you still don't get it, just drive down State Highway One.
This world is turning inside out...land is turning to water .. Some towns can't even protect their cemeteries from the encroaching Gulf: people in the town of Leevile say that only 15 years ago, their loved ones were buried on dry ground.
At the end of this highway, you come to a spot that symbolizes why state leaders say the whole country should care what's happening to this coast.
This little dot on the map, this small place in Cajun southeastern Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico, plays a strategic role in furnishing this country with somewhere between 16 and 18 percent of its entire hydrocarbon supply. That's oil and gas.
ZWERDLING: This is Port Fouchon. This is the base, this is the command center that supports the huge oil and gas industry out in the Gulf of Mexico. Ted Falgout runs this complex for the state.
There's no other place in this country that plays such a great role to this nation's oil and gas supply.
ZWERDLING: You think the Alaska pipeline is big? This place, Port Fouchon handles even more oil than that. A million and a half barrels of oil pass through this port every day. And only some of that's from the Gulf of Mexico. A lot the oil that the U.S. imports from the Middle East arrives in America, here at Port Fouchon.
Here's the problem: the industry pumps all that oil and gas through pipelines that are buried along this coast. The companies buried thousands of miles of pipelines, to keep them safe. But now that the land around them is disintegrating, the pipes are getting exposed in open water.
You know, we have 20,000 miles of pipeline in coastal Louisiana that was not designed to be in the Gulf of Mexico.
ZWERDLING: In fact, erosion led to a nasty oil spill earlier this year. State officials say a ship sliced right through a British Petroleum pipeline that got uncovered. Almost 90,000 gallons leaked into the marsh.
We're talking billions of dollars to come in and repair and hopefully fix these things before we have a major disaster
This business could wash away overnight. And-- and that's a threat. Not only to us, but to everybody in this country.
JACK CALDWELL, HEAD OF LA DEPT OF NATURAL RESOURCES:
Welcome aboard, the train is leaving, its time for action.
ZWERDLING: So some of the most powerful people in Louisiana say that the nation., the federal government, needs to do something dramatic to try to save the coast.
It's a question of what engineering and what science should be applied so we can begin to rebuild this coast. That's why we're here.
ZWERDLING: It's a remarkable coalition ...bankers, scientists, Democrats, Republicans. And they're pushing an audacious plan: They say the government triggered the wetlands crisis when it tamed the Mississippi River, now they want to unleash the river to undo the damage.
MARK DAVIS, HEAD, CAMPAIGN TO RESTORE COASTAL LOUISIANA:
This is a historic day…as we set about the business to ensure the survival of coastal Louisiana.
ZWERDLING: You'll get a sense of what they want to do if you visit the project called Caernarvon.
The official name is the Caernarvon Water Diversion Project. On the surface, it doesn't look like something that could help transform the region. But scientists say this steel and concrete structure is recreating the old Mississippi floods.
You push a few buttons and giant gates open under water. And huge amounts of river-water and sediment through holes into the marsh on the other side.
Denise Reed takes me into this wetland a few miles from the Caernarvon project, to show how it's changing the landscape.
She says before they opened Caernarvon, this wetland was sick today it's coming back.
You see how the vegetation out here, that green, that kind of creeping vegetation is gradually filling in this area. You look at those ponds over there in the distance. You see how the grass is gradually moving in from the edge and filling in. You can see that just here. You see that-- that grass growing out into the middle of this area? This would have all been bare.
ZWERDLING: To prove her point, she suggests a little experiment which is partly inspired, partly sadistic.
Go on, Daniel, go out there.
Am I going to come back?
Well, go on, let's see. I mean, John and I know what's going to happen...
Before Caernarvon, I would have been sinking in water. Now the marsh is rebuilding, with good, honest mud.
I love this marsh!
See, if you look back at the hole, it didn't fill in. It's not like yogurt, its more like clay, the hole is still there.
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING REED):
So this is good, healthy marsh
You got it!
What is land loss? Land loss is marsh turning to open water. Then here, we've got open water and ponds filling in and becoming marsh, reversing the process. This shows that we can do something here. A lot of people think it's hopeless down here in coastal Louisiana. But just coming down here and looking at this, this gives us more than hope. This makes us believe that we can do this.
ZWERDLING: Of course, history shows that when humans try to control nature, something spins out of control. And the minute you put your finger on a map and say, let's unleash the river here, let's mimic the floods there. You might flood somebody's backyard, or their fishing grounds:
George Barisich has been harvesting shrimp and oysters here since he was a little boy. He practically grew up working on this boat with his father.
He says strange things started happening in the bay right after they opened Caernarvon.
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING BARISICH):
What did you start seeing happening to your oysters?
I started seein' a population explosion of mussels.
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING BARISICH):
Mussels, little hook mussels. They grow on the outside of the oyster.
The whole oyster became covered with mussels to where you sometimes you couldn't even see the oyster. It was in there, okay, but you couldn't see it. Which made it nonmarketable and it wasn't fat any more.
ZWERDLING: It turns out that when all that river-water from Caernarvon came flooding into this area, it lowered the salt content of this bay. Scientists say they wanted to do that, to help fix the wetlands. But the fresh water also attracted those killer mussels.
We're doing this Canaervon to benefit everyone in the state of Louisiana, but yet we're the one that suffer. And no one wants to admit it, much less compensate you for that.
ZWERDLING: Barisich and other fishermen sued the state for ruining their oysters. And the courts have awarded them a staggering amount of damages the cases are tied up in appeals, but the fishermen could theoretically get roughly $700 million dollars. Barisich says he could get more than four million dollars himself. That's a lot more than he'd make selling seafood.
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING BARISICH):
Some people might say, "You know what? Sometimes when you have a crisis--" and everybody, all the scientists say there is a crisis here in Louisiana. The coast is disintegrating. "Sometimes a few people have to suffer for the public good."
Correct. I've heard it. I heard that statement several times.
And maybe you're one of those few. You and the other fishermen.
But I don't want to be the few who suffer… there's got to be another way.
Maybe it's a selfish way to look at it. I need to look at it, what's gonna happen next year and a year from now. I gotta plan for my family.
ZWERDLING: The Caernarvon lawsuit has caused an uproar in Louisiana the verdicts could bankrupt the state budget. Officials say that Caernarvon has taught them painful lessons. For one thing, the next time they tinker with the Mississippi, they'll compensate fishermen who might be affected. Second, they can't just assume that everybody will embrace their campaign to save the wetlands - they need to sell it.
We like it when it's here, its called America's Wetlands…
ZWERDLING: So they're designing a national ad campaign. Scientists figure they'll need billions of dollars to save just some of the wetlands. Louisiana doesn't have the money, so state leaders want to convince you, the American taxpayer, they want to convince Congress that the nation should pay the bill.
We want to talk about branding a campaign…
What we're dealing with is a huge, huge problem. Nobody in the United States has had to deal with a problem like this on this scale. And we need $14 billion from Congress. We have an issue that's very difficult to explain. Nobody knows about it. I think we needed a campaign.
ZWERDLING: But they know it's going to be tough to get Congress to spend money on wetlands... Especially when the economy's stumbling and the nation's fighting terrorists.
And there could be other hurdles. A lot of legislators in Washington might be a little leery of sending billions of dollars to Louisiana.
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING CALDWELL):
Why should they trust that you're going to spend the billions and billions of dollars that you want them to pay, wisely? I mean, here we are looking at the Louisiana State Capitol, this is the scene of some of the most juicy and heinous scandals in US political history.
JACK CALDWELL, HEAD OF LOUISIANA DEPT NATURAL RESOURCES:
That is correct. We have a very checkered history. For example on insurance commissioner, you're not gonna believe this. The last three in a row have been convicted of felony three in a row of elected insurance commissioner. Why should you have an elected insurance commissioner?
You're not giving me much confidence about Louisiana.
No, what I'm telling you though, its changing.
ZWERDLING: Caldwell says the state's leaders are making a big push to stamp out corruption, but there's another issue.
OLIVER HOUCK, TULANE UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL:
Everybody knows that he oil and gas industry is a huge cause of this problem, a major cause. That's a given. But no one goes to the next step. No one says, "Well, since they're a big part of the problem, hey, why don't they help clean it up?"
ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING HOUCK):
Why not blame the oil and gas industry to some extent? They have contributed to, by all scientific accounts, to a huge amount of the destruction in the wetlands. Why not blame 'em and make them pay?
The real reason is because it was done legally at the time. Those canals were dug in the 50s, 60s, 70s, -- we stopped that now.
The government officials gave permission -
Yes, it was legal back then, no one appreciated their value back then, wetlands were considered wastelands.
ZWERDLING: But he says the oil and gas industry could sure help the campaign to save the wetlands...if it offers to pay its fair share.
I think it would be to their benefit to do so, and I've told them that. And so to my mind that they should be willing to make a contribution, yes, I've told them that. And that idea has not been flatly rejected.
ZWERDLING: Even if Louisiana gets all the money it wants tomorrow, scientists say it could take decades to really see the results. They say no amount of money will ever restore the coast to the way it used to be...and they say that's exactly why the nation needs to act now, to save what's left.
I think saving the coast is going to be complicated. I-- I know it's not gonna be easy. But I know we have to try. And I know that we understand a lot about it. I believe we understand enough about it to start moving forward and making some progress on it. But, no, it's not gonna be easy. Moving water around where we want it is not gonna be easy. We're gonna alter the way things are gonna look down here. They're not gonna be the same anymore. I mean, they're not gonna be the same if we don't do anything because it's all gonna go to hell in a hand basket. But-- you know-- people's lives are gonna change.
Losing Ground is produced in collaboration with American Radio Works.