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FIELD TRIP: Wetlands,
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22/10/2009 22:00

[Images of wetlands visit: http://tinyurl.com/yhcc5lx]

Coastal restoration projects to bring urgently needed help to Louisiana's receding wetlands are being held up by bureaucracy and lack of funding, delegates heard on Thursday.

Work to try to curb the the disappearance of the crucial buffer zone is not progressing quickly enough due to obstructive red-tape, said Chris Macaluso of the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration.

“We have been trying to work with a limited budget and, frankly, a limited amount of cooperation from federal government,” he said, saying that this had 'tremendously delayed' the construction of vital projects to restore the wetlands.

The estimated budget for the next four years was 'simply not enough' and nowhere near the $1bn scientists and engineers believe they will need to fully regenerate the area, he added. “They have yet to spend one federal dollar on construction,” he said, claiming that the US Corps of Engineers prioritised the Mississippi's navigation and flood protection systems over environmental protection.

Delegates were able to see the wetland destruction at first hand as they toured the marshlands, swamps and bayous near the coastal town of Lafitte. Louis Hatty, who has taken tourists around the area for 20 years, said that action to prevent the land receding could not 'happen fast enough'.

Levees built on the Mississippi to minimise the flood risk were stopping the flow of salt-water and sediment to the wetlands, causing them to erode, he said. The degradation was exacerbated by oil and gas exploration, he added.

“It's shrinking vastly. It's huge portions that we're losing,” he said. “If nothing gets done in the next couple of years you're looking at an area that will end up in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Demonstrating the potential of strategies to counter the trend, Hatty told delegates that a project begun 15 years ago to divert freshwater into the wetlands had succeeded in saving much of the local flora and fauna. Bald cypress trees which had been suffering from saltwater exposure were now growing healthily in the zones targeted, he said.

Outlining what is expected to be the largest wetland restoration project ever constructed, Macaluso also explained how coordinated action could potentially curb the wetlands' destruction. The Barataria Basin Landbridge initiative, due for completion in January 2010, aims to regenerate wetlands by dredging sediment from local bayous and depositing it in shallow open-water areas.

But, while this project remains a rare success story, the rate at which land is being lost far exceeds that at which it is being created, he cautioned. “It is a drop in the bucket,” said Macaluso. Without far more large-scale projects, he said, “the ecosystem is going to continue to subside and collapse.”

The scale of the risk is old news to the population of local town Lafitte. But Mayor Tom Kerner believes visitors need to be made aware as well. He has spearheaded the construction of a $4.6m complex designed to communicate the gravity of the threat, including a cinema, museum and nature trial through the surrounding wetlands.

Taking care of the wetlands, he said, was 'not only good for Lafitte and for the state of Louisiana but for the rest of the world.' If nothing is done to help, Kerner warned delegates that 'it won't be enough' to stop his town suffering the full force of climate change.

By Lizzie Davies