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Blue Bayou

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It's morbidly painful to see ecological disaster strike at southern Louisiana--again. At risk now are the wetlands--the bayous.

Just last month I took an amazing airboat ride in the Barataria Preserve of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, just 38 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico and saw alligators, fish, turtles, nutria, birds, Spanish moss, bald cypress (which can live to be 1,000 years old) and live oaks (that live hundreds of years, too). The guide, a Cajun who grew up in the area, discussed how these living things all were interconnected to make the bayou what it is. The air was sweet and clean and I could understand why people have loved this place and made a living of hunting, fishing and trapping. The bayou isn't just a swamp. It is a way of life!

The bayou is a French word meaning slow-moving waterway. It is an offshoot of the Mississippi River and forms a delta at the river's mouth. It took a thousand years of annual spring flooding for the silt and sediments to develop this unique region. But it's taken only the past 60 years of human activity to endanger it.

Saltwater intrusion and erosion threaten to destroy 60 percent of the bayou by 2040, said Richard Campanella, associate director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane University. He spoke recently at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in New Orleans.

The reason this is happening is due in part to the activities of the oil and gas industry. This oil spill will surely speed up the process.

The threat to the bayou didn't happen last month with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Oil rigs began to appear in the brackish coastal areas of the Gulf in the early 1930s when the Texas Company (Texaco) developed the first mobile steel barges for drilling. After World War II, other companies began to build fixed off-shore platforms near southern Louisiana. Today the Gulf hosts about 4,000 platforms.

Since 1950, an 8,000-mile system of canals has been constructed in the bayous-- with channels 15 to 25-feet wide and six to seven-feet deep--to accommodate the transport of oil-related equipment.

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Many people in Louisiana have been concerned about the disappearing bayous, whose loss each day is equivalent to the size of a football field. Among them are musicians like the jazz singer/songwriter known as Dr. John who wrote "Black Gold" (included in his Grammy Award-winning 2007 album, The City That Care Forgot). The song points out how canals make the area more vulnerable to hurricanes and other storms. The wetlands provide protection to the mainland, one reason why Hurricane Katrina was so destructive.

"Thirty years ago we had a plan to build new wetlands," said Dr. John, "but corruption in the state made the money go elsewhere." He also spoke at the APA conference.

Today, the world consumes 85 million barrels of oil per day. The United States is the top guzzler at almost 23 percent. The European Union comes in second at 14 percent, China at 9 percent and India at 3 percent.

Nearly half of each barrel of oil is made into gasoline while the rest is used in agriculture, cosmetics, soaps and cleaning supplies, textiles, plastics, recreational equipment, auto parts, kitchen appliances--practically everything, according to the Ranken Energy Corporation.

Our desire for oil makes us willing to do whatever it takes to get it. This self-destructive drive and over-reliance on oil is bad for four reasons.

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First, oil is a non-renewable resource and its supply is limited. We have already extracted about half of the cheap and easy-to-obtain oil in the world. What's left is more difficult to extract--some of which is available through the deep-water off-shore rigs!

Second, as we all know, carbon-based fuels are choking our planet's atmosphere. Before the Industrial Revolution began around 1750, earth had 270 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. Today, it is at 390 ppm. Climate change is linked to the increasing intensity of storms and directly responsible for rising seas due to melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

Third, accidents like the oil spill demonstrate how dangerous oil drilling can be to the environment and to the livelihoods of people living in coastal areas.

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Olga Bonfiglio is a Huffington Post contributor and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice and religion. She (more...)

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