We are a group of University of Wisconsin – Madison students taking a course in wetland ecology and community development in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The University of Wisconsin
The University of Wisconsin System is one of the largest systems of public higher education in the country, serving more than 160,000 students each year and employing more than 32,000 faculty and staff statewide. The UW System is made up of 13 four-year universities, 13 freshman-sophomore UW Colleges, and the statewide UW-Extension program.
The largest of the four-year universities, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, is home to 20 different schools and colleges. One of these, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (Nelson Institute), is unique in that it brings together about 150 faculty from various academic departments to offer graduate students interdisciplinary instruction leading to one of three graduate degrees or four graduate certificate programs.
The UW – Nelson Institute
The mission of the Nelson Institute (NI) is “to promote understanding of the environment and to define and solve environmental problems and issues through leadership in interdisciplinary instruction, research, and outreach at all levels, from campus to global.”
This program acknowledges the complex nature of contemporary environmental issues and the need to address them from an interdisciplinary perspective. Students are prepared to tackle these issues by integrating the biological and physical sciences (which identify and measure problems) with engineering (which defines technological alternatives) and law and the social sciences (which assess needs and potential for institutional response).
The Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans
The Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest communities in New Orleans, was severely damaged after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August of 2005. This neighborhood — located downriver from the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods in New Orleans, and bounded by the Industrial Canal, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, Jackson Barracks, and the Mississippi River — is popularly called “Lower Ninth Ward.” However, there are two neighborhoods within its boundaries: the Lower Nine neighborhood census tracts, and the Holy Cross neighborhood census tracts.
The population of the Lower Ninth Ward area has always included a mix of races and of income levels. This lower, less desirable land became home to poor African Americans and immigrant laborers from Ireland, Germany and Italy in the mid-1800s. Early residents established fraternal organizations to assist extended families and friends in settling in to the area; close family ties continue to characterize the area. Growth continued with infrastructural improvements in the early 1900s and increased during a post-World War II building boom area with many new working class residents moving in. The damage caused by Hurricane Betsy in 1965, combined with other factors, led to a struggling economy and “white flight.”
The community seeks to turn the recent devastation of its entire area into an opportunity by addressing the above long-standing environmental and safety issues. The Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (HCNA) as well as groups in the Lower Ninth Ward, plan to rebuild not only homes, but also the neighboring wetland in order to assure the returning residents that they will be better protected from storms, and will have a clean and inviting neighborhood recreation area. Before the Industrial Canal was built in 1923, the area was an un-drained swamp with abundant fishing and wildlife. With this wetland restoration project, the community hopes to restore some of its natural history and its dignity.
Members of the Holy Cross neighborhood and the Lower Ninth Ward have fond memories of using and enjoying the bayou in the 1950s and 60s, at that time a cypress swamp, and fishing and crabbing through the 1980s. Levee construction and the installation of a supporting (and separating) metal barrier contributed to gradually making the bayou a forgotten area resource. Community members want to restore Bayou Bienvenue, ideally to a cypress swamp, and increase access to and use of this resource. The hydrology and ecology of this site are especially fascinating — it has characteristics of both a natural, small wetland in the delta area of a massive river basin, and characteristics of a tract of undeveloped land within the constructed hydrology of a major shipping port and urban center. Wetland restoration is a complex process in any environment, and this will prove no exception. Yet the neighboring community has a strong history of working together to overcome difficulties, and they are dedicated to including the restoration of Bayou Bienvenue as part of their neighborhood rebuilding plan.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board (NOSWB) and St. Bernard Parish have jointly proposed a regional restoration project to restore 10,000 acres of cypress wetlands, including the triangular site adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward. The NOSWB’s largest treatment facility resides next to Bayou Bienvenue, with a landfill lining one side of the project site. The NOSWB has plans to use its own treatment plant effluent (high in nutrients and solids) to help restore the wetland (and save NOSWB $2 million per year). They have discussed such plans with the HCNA, and there is community support, as this approach has been successful at the city treatment plant in Thibodaux, just west of New Orleans. NOSWB, whose aging infrastructure was greatly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, has requested proposals for plans to pump treated effluent into Bayou Bienvenue.
For public health concerns, the potential for accumulation of contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and heavy metals from the effluent needs to be investigated. The community has additional concerns regarding the effects of the local landfill on water quality and the potential for exposure. HCNA has requested an environmental impact assessment of the study site that includes investigating the possibility of toxic exposure caused by the landfill. As a result, the University of Wisconsin project will involve assessing the impact of wastewater effluent both for its potential restorative value and for possible harm. We expect to receive advice and assistance from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, and we will stay abreast of plans of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The study will also include an investigation of potential contamination of the wetland caused by the landfill that lines the eastern side of the study site. In addition to the wetland restoration study, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Colorado will collaborate with the local organizations and community groups to develop preliminary plans for a nature preserve, and nature and educational center.
It is critical to establish post-Katrina, baseline conditions of Bayou Bienvenue before the NOSWB begins to divert effluent. This work should certainly be done by the contracting firm, but community members strongly desire to have an analysis and review completed by an independent party. Finally, for the physical safety of the neighborhood, there is hope that the wetland can be restored. It has been demonstrated that wetlands can absorb water and energy of hurricane induced storm surges. Establishing a local natural barrier in the form of a wetland has received unanimous community support.
The projected outcomes of this project will fall under two categories: wetland restoration and community capacity. Successful wetland restoration will provide increased protection from future storm surges, improve water quality and a restore a healthy ecosystem, and provide economic benefits resulting from increased storm and flood protection and the establishment of a neighborhood nature preserve. Every step of this project not only involves, but is led by the community, constantly strengthening organizational capacity. The UW – Nelson Institute aspect of this project will focus on building the capacity of community members in order to become more engaged in both the management of local environmental resources and in related decision-making processes. The Nelson Institute will provide scientific expertise and analysis to enable the community to fulfill its goals. This collaborative effort has the potential to become a model for other communities, and projects: the redevelopment of New Orleans (and elsewhere), in coupling wastewater treatment with wetland restoration, and in assisting the community in being drivers of its own development and environmental management (instigating change in public agencies).