The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Rivergator Atchafalaya Appendix 15:
Unlike almost every other place
along the Louisiana coast, land is growing, not disappearing, at the base of this old canal.
Lloyd Sauce has lived in the vicinity of the Calumet Cut for the entirety of his life.
He’s sixty-seven, and standing on the banks of the canal, he was tall and square-jawed, and we were hot. It was over 100 degrees, and there were very few takers at the boat ramp that he helps to manage along the muddy water channel. “My daddy helped dig this spillway. He was the guy that blow the stumps up. Boom. Demolition man,” he said. “Big oak stumps. Used to be a lot of oak trees around here. All along Bayou Teche, nothing but big, old five-, six-hundred-year-old trees.”
“The reason why he took the demolition job was ‘cause it paid a little more. The other guy blew himself up, or something-another story he told us; so they needed someone else, so he took the job.” Sauce looked off and asked his deceased father, “‘You were trying to blow yoself up?’,” he laughed. “House full of kids, you know.” That house was a camp boat on Bayou Boutte, upstream and across the Atchafalaya River, which is the origin of this spillway. Eventually, Sauce moved to Franklin, just across the water from where we stood.
In appearance, the Calumet Cut (also called the Wax Lake Outlet or the Wax Lake Spillway) is not unlike the thousands of other man-made, straight-shot canals that crisscross southern Louisiana. When the channel was opened just west of Morgan City in 1941, it wasn’t intended to be anything but a large drainage canal. But over the years, it’s become something else.
There’s a formidability about the canal that seemed to occupy Sauce. After seven decades receiving flow from the Atchafalaya, it has grown in width, depth, and current. According to a 2005 research paper authored by scientists from the ExxonMobile research department and LSU’s Coastal Studies Institute, the canal dug by Lloyd Sauce’s father was originally forty-four feet deep and forty feet wide. But Sauce pointed to a place upstream, just past a gray houseboat flying the American flag, and said, “They got one place up above the high lines up there, it’s got like about seventy, eighty, ninety foot of water.” It has also grown in width, measuring six hundred feet across in some places. “Every year, this water’s just more and more and more water, just coming through.”
In the thirties, no one seemed to wonder what would happen to this water once it mixed with the brackish waters of the Atchafalaya Bay. The unwanted water wasn’t meant to go anywhere except for somewhere else: out of sight and away from the floodwalls and oil infrastructure of Morgan City. But Sauce described extreme changes at the canal’s terminus. “When I was probably about eight years old, the spillway—right out where it ends to the bay—it used to be just the coastline. But now you go down there, and there’s sandbars and trails, and everything’s just flushed out through there. All this water, sand …” In other words, unlike almost every other place along the Louisiana coast, land is growing, not disappearing, at the base of this old canal.
He went to his truck, pulled out a map of the bay, and pointed to where the coastline used to be. Far beneath that line on his map, a delta fanned out, shaped like the canopy of a tree, off into the bay. “It used to be nothing but just straight, whoosh, coastline.” He motioned to chop the delta off the map.
The new delta is called the Wax Lake Delta, and over the last forty years it has created twelve thousand acres of land, nearly three times the area of Morgan City. At lower tides, the acreage is even bigger. “We used to hunt coons and stuff on the beach,” said Sauce. “When the tide was out, the water was down, them coons would be out on the beach getting them clam shells, and we’d track ‘em down and shoot ‘em for the fur. And now it ain’t like that. Nothing like that. It looks like this.” He pointed to the forested banks across the channel.
Two hours later, twenty miles downstream, I sat in a boat at the “whoosh” coastline, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Cassidy Lejeune, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), nosed his agency’s powerboat towards a sign stuck into the bank of the canal, which at this point measured hundreds of feet across. The sign marked the boundary of the Atchafalaya Delta Wildlife Management Area (WMA), a 137,000-acre public-use area that LDWF manages for hunters, fishers, trappers, birders, and others who visit this anomaly of the Louisiana coast. The WMA encompasses much of the Atchafalaya Bay, a shallow cove of muddy water that yawns its way out into the Gulf. Within the bay are the two deltas of the Atchafalaya River system: the Wax Lake Delta, which we were motoring towards, and the main delta of the Atchafalaya River, just to the east.
After describing the WMA, Lejeune motored away from the sign but quickly slowed down again. “The key thing to remember is that all of this, south of that sign, back in the early 1960s, was open water.” I was amazed when I looked back towards the sign. There was no beach, no clam shells, no coons, and no clear opening to any bay. In the place where the coastline used to be, a curtain of willows thirty or forty feet high grew tall and thick along each bank of the canal, which stretched before us as it had behind us. Looking downstream under a big sky, the channel definitely widened, but the scene was interrupted by long stretches of land strung intermittently across the horizon between the old coastline and the bay.
Further down, we stopped on the bank of Mike’s Island, the largest of the new islands in the Wax Lake Delta. A wonderland of round, green leaves was exploding out of the water, some reaching the height of the boat’s deck. They were the size of manhole covers and scattered among them were the cream-colored flowers of the American Lotus, too many to count, in full late-summer bloom. Lejeune explained that these patches of aquatic vegetation were harbingers of even more new land. “Pioneers,” he called them.
For the last twelve years, Lejeune, who is in his early thirties, has helped manage the Atchafalaya Delta WMA. In this relatively short amount of time, he’s watched sandbars emerge, islands named, and channels become too narrow for boats. He’s had to deal
with landlocked oil platforms no longer accessible by water.
Lejeune explained the Wax Lake Delta’s development: on the visible scale, he said, pointing to the lotus flowers, “All of this stuff is growing in a maximum of two inches of water … As all this sediment dumps out into the bay, it raises the bay-bottom up and it becomes what they call subaerial and it pokes out the water. When it pokes out the water, it’s a sandbar, and what happens is it gets hospitable to where vegetation starts growing.” The growth of these pioneers “slows down the water and helps to trap all of this sediment from the river into these shallow water areas. And so it builds up over time.”
Then he explained how this same process helped build the Louisiana coast over millennia as the Mississippi River changed course and built up different portions of South Louisiana. “The changing of the Mississippi over the last eight thousand years has acted like what they call ‘the garden-hose effect’ where it’s built land. It was out in St. Bernard, and it built up all of St. Bernard. Then it switched to Terrebonne, and it built up all of Terrebonne. It was once several thousand years out in Vermillion Bay, and it built up all of the south central, southwest part of the state. But now that it is what it is, and we’ve kind of altered the landscape, there’s kind of no turning back.”
Some see the Wax Lake Delta as a very slight “turning back,” toward a more liberated, land-building river because although the Mississippi is hemmed-in by levees and unable to writhe like a garden hose, it is the Mississippi’s sand and silt that has grown the Wax Lake Delta for the last forty years. The Wax Spillway, by way of the Atchafalaya River, receives about ten percent of the Mississippi River’s waters. As we talked, I watched aquatic plants wave with the current while thin layers of silt accumulated on their green leaves.
LDWF chose Lejeune to co-author a 2008 book-length report on the future of the Atchafalaya Delta WMA. Those strategies, for the Wax at least, are remarkably simple: do nothing and prevent humans from causing too much damage. “There’s really not much to do out here. It’s building itself,” he said. Besides making and enforcing rules for users or measuring salinity, LDWF watches the delta unfold. The result has been what Lejeune calls a “pristine” delta: an untouched geological scenario that scientists from around the world can come and observe. Lejeune has worked with scientists from across the country and the planet who clamor after the chance to witness the delta grow—willow by willow, grain of sand by grain of sand—as a river meets the sea.
Dr. Robert Twilley is the executive director of Louisiana Sea Grant, a program that focuses on research and resilience in coastal communities. He and his team have been trying to discover whether the land-building success in the Wax could be replicated along the Louisiana coast, where other rivers and bayous with rich sediment loads could be released into deteriorating marshes. Twilley said that as good as the Calumet Cut has been at building land, there are other sites along Louisiana’s coast that could be even better, since the ability of a place to receive sediment and create land can be measured and calculated. The Wax has about an eighteen percent retention efficiency; but, he said, “If you put big diversions in the Bonnet Carre and Bayou Lafourche and other parts of the river around New Orleans or Lake Maurepas, you’d probably get eighty to ninety [percent] retention efficiency.”
Besides scientists, a pristine delta attracts hordes of other creatures, especially ducks. “On opening weekend there’s about fifteen species of ducks harvested on the Atchafalaya (WMA),” Lejeune said, “where, in a less healthy marsh, they’ll have half that amount of species.” It’s become one of the most popular places to hunt in Louisiana. According to LDWF, there are between thirty and forty thousand hunting and fishing trips made to the area every year.
Posting in a waterfowl forum on the website of Louisiana Sportsman magazine, a user named Hevi-shot-4 called the Wax Lake Delta “absolutely the most beautiful, treacherous, miserable and heartbreaking area you’ll ever experience.” Other duck hunters echoed Hevi-shot’s sentiments for a place where ducks are plentiful but “the sand bars seem to move” and “mud flats appear out of no where [sic].”
I don’t hunt, but I’ll echo Hevi-shot for other reasons. In light of the ghost forests and disintegrating islands along the rest of Louisiana’s coast, the growth of clumps of plants and lines of trees on the Wax seems almost miraculous. On the bottom-most end of the delta, unseparated from the Gulf, hyacinth floats in the open water, literally paving the way for new islands where future generations will learn to hunt. “The Wax Delta and even the main [Atchafalaya River] delta are the only real significant areas where we’re experiencing gain on the coast,” Lejeune said.
The magnitude of the eighteen-hundred-plus square miles of land that have disappeared in Louisiana over the last century, not to mention the habitat and culture that have gone with them, is difficult to fathom, especially compared to the beauty and benefits of the eighteen miles that comprise the Wax. A definite quandary exists in the fact that a shrinking coast and this new paradise are both unintended consequences of the same well-meaning human engineering. But for some, like Dr. Robert Twilley, the Wax Lake Delta is a sign that the processes of nature can still be harnessed to grow the Louisiana coast.
By Christopher Staudinger for Country Roads Magazine, October 2015