ACADIA PARISH, LA — The Atchafalaya is the country's largest river/swamp, with more than 1 million acres of swamps, bayous, bottomland hardwoods and backwater lakes. Some say it's the heart of southern Louisiana.
You wouldn't know it when you're out on the water, drifting lazily through a clump of cypress trees or getting lost in the flight of an Egrit, but more than half of the Atchafalaya is a dead zone, which means nothing can live there.
As Harold Schoeffler, chair of the Acadian Group of the Sierra Club, explains, dead zones happen when dams build up. Some of them can be blamed on human nature, while others can be blamed on Mother Nature.
"Probably 75 percent of the Basin is in that category; it’s enormous,” stated Schoeffler. "The oxygen level goes to nothing. However, the cure is not difficult because all it involves in going through the bayous and pulling out the dams - not an expensive fix."
Fixing this problem is becoming increasingly important.
"The water level in the basin is dropping drastically," said Schoeffler, "as we keep more and more water in the Mississippi. Part of the problem is we put dams all over the country – 6,000 dams in the Mississippi distributary alone - and every one of them impacts the Basin."
Harold says focusing on the problem from that angle is pointless, partly because those kinds of changes would create economic ripples.
"You'd have a hard time trying to deal with these issues," he said. "It's not likely we're going to change that. Mother Nature may change that, but we're not going to change that. It's beyond economic reality to do that."
This is the reason he says that his focus is on the dams found within the Atchafalaya Basin itself.
"With a lot of these dams, you'll have one dam that will block off 20,000 acres," he said, "so to remove and restore that area is very important."
Schoeffler says that he's proud that the message is being heard.
"Voters last year approved a $10 million fund for restoration of the Basin and most of that will involve taking these dams out."
Once the dams are gone, he believes that nature will mend itself.
"Nature is very forgiving," he said with a smile. "When you restore the hydrology of a bayou eco-system, the recovery is instant. You start producing crawfish, you start producing shrimp, you start allowing the material to come in and out. What a remarkable thing. And then you get to enjoy the bounty of the basin - the fishing, the hunting, all of those things that, in spite of its problems, the Basin still provides."
For people that want to help out, Schoeffler says that there are a lot of groups committed to protecting the Atchafalaya, not just the Acadian Group of the Sierra Club