Restoring Our Vanishing Coastline One Blade of Grass at a Time

The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to drive bold, science-based action to rebuild Coastal Louisiana. I’ve volunteered to participate in their regular coastal plantings a couple of times in the past – usually involving a boat ride out to a sandy island where we’d plant tiny mangrove plants in our bare feet and meet like-minded new friends. So when my friend Elizabeth asked me to join her on another planting a few Fridays back, I cleared my calendar and signed up right away. Little did I know this planting would be much more extreme than times past!

Around 40 volunteers gathered early the morning of the planting at a location just outside the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. We packed ourselves a lunch and made sure we were thoroughly covered with sunscreen and bug spray before boarding buses to our launch point. On the ride over, we were given an overview of CRCL and shown a map of our southern coastline. Large areas of red on the map designated land loss in the past 70 years and tiny specs of green showed areas that saw land gain. I’d always heard the common statistic that LA loses a football field of land mass a day, but to have this visual so clearly illustrating the damage was very shocking.

We would be planting California bulrush (Schoenoplectus californicus) grasses to help eliminate the recession of marsh land in Bayou Sauvage. We were slowly shuttled out to the planting sites by airboat. It’s a rare experience for the average New Orleanian to be treated to an airboat ride and I was excited that this was a part of our day. I patiently waited for my turn, imagining that on the other side of my boat ride awaited the typical sandy shoreline in need of some grasses. Finally my turn, I secured my ear plugs in place and cinched my hat down tight, excited to be out in the marshland doing my part to save a little more of our beautiful coastline from land loss.

Deep into the Bayou Sauvage marsh my friend Elizabeth points to an area of grasses and I see people wading far out into the water planting grass. “Oh wow, those guys are go-getters!” I thought to myself. Then we pull up to the edge of another area of marshland. The leader hops out of the boat and straight into the water, up to her thighs! She asks us to start throwing the plants (also transported by airboat) out onto the edge of the existing marsh vegetation. She shows us how to separate the grasses and sink them 6” into the mud (about 2 feet under the water). Then she instructed us to jump out ourselves and get started, floating our bags and lunches on the more established marsh grasses.

What?? My imagination started dreaming up all sorts of alligators and snakes lurking just under the brown water waiting to bite off toes or chunks of leg. The CRCL leader assured me they had already checked the area for these threats and there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. Regardless of this fear, I had no idea our biggest challenge of the day had nothing to do with creatures. I gathered my courage and awkwardly climbed overboard. My feet hit the muddy marsh floor and kept sinking and sinking and sinking until I was almost up to my knees in muck! Pulling my right foot back out was a full body workout and caused my left foot to sink deeper. The only reprieve was sitting on the already established vegetation, with mud and marsh water still seeping through this fragile system.

Our small group’s job was to connect two lines of bulrush grass plantings about 50 feet into the open water. The new grasses will take a year or two to become established, the mature grass clumps will catch soil and provide the ecosystem necessary for more plant life to take root eventually leading to more marsh land mass. By cutting through the middle of the open water, the grasses would eliminate wave movement that leads to more and more erosion.

I had never experienced this type of labor before, my body was out of shape to this sort of grueling slugging through the mud, it was hot and carrying the unruly plants out to the planting zone was adding insult to injury. I whined to my friend Elizabeth and was completely shocked – and a little embarrassed – that I was the only one complaining. Everyone else in my group (even the girls that looked sissier than me), were quietly and diligently doing their duty. Trudging the 50 feet back and forth from planting zone to the pile of grass plugs, navigating the mud’s suction and hidden roots that would cut or bruise your shins if you weren’t careful, none of them gave a peep of negativity and they all must have planted 3 times as many grasses as I did.

By the end of the day, covered in mud, bruises, some of us even with bloody cuts, it was a proud moment to climb onto the boat and see from afar the impact of our plantings. Where before there was open water, our group of 40 volunteers had started the network of growth by planting over 20,000 grass plugs. Our airboat pilot for the return trip was the Fish & Wildlife manager of Bayou Savauge. He personally thanked us for our efforts that day and told us he would be coming back as often he could to check the progress of our plantings. We all silently hoped for no hurricane this season that would surely undo all of our hard work.

Back on land, CRCL had free Abita beverages, crawfish and a live brass band as an offering for our hard work. That cold Abita beer never tasted so good. I am so thankful for organizations like CRCL that coordinate events such as these and I have even more gratitude and admiration for my determined peers and fellow citizens that can help restore our coastline one grass at a time … without whining and complaining.

Sound like something you’d be interested in doing? Sign up to receive emails about CRCL volunteer events here.

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