Have you ever seen Bayou Bienvenue just north of the Lower Ninth Ward? Did you know that at the “end of town” that is Florida Avenue, across the railroad tracks and behind a floodwall begins what used to be a thriving cypress swamp that works its way eastward to Lake Borgne, forming the northern geographic boundary of St. Bernard Parish? “Used to” as the swamp has turned into a brackish cesspool since its bisection by the Mississippi River – Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) in the late 1950s and early ’60s and the subsequent introduction of seawater. Many of you may have just heard of the bayou and its proposed restoration for the first time in the Gambit’s cover story from a few weeks ago entitled Sustaining The Nine.
… at the soul of the sustainable redevelopment of the area, lies the restoration of the cypress swamp at the headwaters of Bayou Bienvenue. Steve Ringo remembers a time before the [MR-GO] flooded the bayou with saltwater and killed the native cypress trees and swamp just north of the Lower Nine.
Last evening I got a glimpse of this vast and awe-inspiring body of water and the work being done to save it thanks partly to Wisconsin. Students from the University of Wisconsin’s Water Resource Management program are about to wrap up their first summer of scientific and social work on Bayou Bienvenue. At the behest of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (HCNA) and the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board (S&WB), the Bayou Bienvenue-Central Wetland Unit practicum will study the feasibility of rehabilitating the wetland and the cypress forest through the introduction of the end products of treated sewage.
The WRM team talked to me of discovering little cypress trees, that grow despite the odds, and showed me pictures of herons, kites and a variety of swamp birds I can’t name. Surrounded by the Industrial Canal, illegal dumping along Almonaster Avenue, the S&WB sewage treatment plant and intruding seawater, I’m surprised anything survives there. Therefore, another major aim of this project is to establish a nature center “to introduce visitors to the natural history of southern Louisiana’s wetlands, and to present some of the local culture and history of the Holy Cross Neighborhood.” For a neighborhood divided – the Lower 9 “proper” above and Holy Cross below St. Claude – and hanging on by a thread after the flood, this is truly rejuvenation of culture, environment and hope.
The students whom I met, Laura, Ashleigh, Andy and Michelle, and their leader, Professor Herb Wang, call this the summer of the baseline due to the current lack of (reliable) spatial and (any) environmental data on the swamp.
… the students are working [with the HCNA] this summer to identify the plant, animal and aquatic life currently living in and around the swamp. They’re taking water samples to determine salinity levels and measuring water depths, all in an effort to establish baseline data. Once they know what’s there now and what was once there, they can begin the restoration process.
Standing on the banks of the swamp yesterday, we were at sea level. Climbing back down eleven feet to the level of Florida Avenue, I knew that the Lower Ninth Ward used to be another cypress swamp but found out that that swamp was slightly higher than sea level. Once it was drained in the late 1800s and early 1900s to put in streets and houses for the working poor, the swamp soil compacted until the entire area descended well below sea level. In fact, the part of the swamp we looked at was slated for draining, too, but later left alone. It’s hard to stomach the disaster that was waiting to happen for decades: continued human meddling with nature and incompetence in levee building destroyed the entire Lower Ninth Ward, both parts above and below sea level. And there you have it, a largely black-American neighborhood was almost wiped off the face of the earth in the year 2005, but for the love and resilience of a group of determined residents.
Riding through the desolate streets, I remarked to a friend, “It just breaks my heart every time I come here.” My friend replied, “This is why I don’t come here.” After yesterday’s learning experience, I can’t help but not go back, to learn more and help the people of this neighborhood in any way possible, if only it’s to say hi! to our neighbors on that side of the Industrial Canal, since we don’t talk so much about them here except in hushed sympathetic tones. On Thursday evening, I will attend a meeting of the HCNA to meet these great people face-to-face, hear how they work, invite them to the Rising Tide conference and … just make friends. Much gratitude to the UW Water Resources Management team for spending their summer down here and working to restore a part of this area’s natural environment. You are welcome any time. Bienvenue!
My Bayou Bienvenue photo gallery
Pre-Katrina neighborhood snapshot of the Lower Ninth Ward from GNOCDC
Help Holy Cross – neighborhood blog
Information on the Lower Ninth Ward Homeownership Association