Last Modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 12:06 PM
If canals dug by oil companies years ago have caused land loss along the Louisiana Gulf Coast, why not simply fill them in? As you would expect, it’s because those who could get the job done won’t admit the canals have been a major contributor to coastal erosion. And many landowners are enjoying benefits that some of those canals provide.
The Advocate discussed the canals in a recent detailed report that said they have been a cause for concern as far back at the 1950s. Critics said the canals disturbed the marsh and the spoil banks piled up alongside those waterways contributed to salt water intrusion that has been harmful to areas surrounding the marshes.
Filling in the canals stirred some interest in the 1980s, but the newspaper said the idea didn’t get much traction. Oliver Houck, professor of law at Tulane University Law School, said thorough reports were done back then, but they were suppressed. He added that some state legislators tried to pass laws requiring “backfilling,” but they never got anywhere.
“They killed it dead. They drove a stake through its heart,” Houck said. “It’s one of those great ideas that just never had a backer.”
OK, so what about the landowners who like those canals?
The waterways serve as access routes to hunting and fishing areas and as a way to get from one area of a marsh to another. Landowners build camps and create duck ponds near the canals. They also have a financial motive for keeping canals open. Deeper oil and gas extraction makes old wells attractive and money-makers again.
Houck said oil and gas drilling companies believe filling in the canals would mean they are admitting the canals and spoil banks are a problem. And that presents legal dilemmas for companies facing lawsuits like the one filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority and others by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes.
Meanwhile, supporters of filling in the canals are complaining those projects aren’t part of the state’s $50 billion, 50-year plan to try to halt coastal erosion. David Muth, state director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Louisiana Coastal Campaign, explained why.
“It doesn’t fix the harm the canal and spoil bank did in the first place,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what the state should be spending its money on.”
There is a reason for some optimism about the canals. Kyle Graham, deputy executive director of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said canals do get filled in during the course of other restoration projects. He added that landowners could be given incentives to get them to close in other canals.
Coastal restoration is a complex process that requires multiple solutions. We hope the filling in of canals will continue to be a subject of debate because they have played a role in our disappearing coastline.