Backfilling unused canals can restore flows and marsh without impeding access--all it takes is the oil industry paying back a small part of its debt to our coast.
While the state is focused on larger-scale projects, like restoring the river and dredged marsh creation, there are tens of thousands of acres of restoration in the Delta that backfilling unused canals can accomplish--if the state merely asks the industry to comply with the law, and to work with DNR OCM to restore lands the state seeks to sustain with the river.
When the coastal management program was first conceived, Louisiana's Dept of Natural Resources required the industry to fix their damages. DNR stopped required backfilling of canals some time ago, despite many studies outlining the benefits, and requests by the Louisiana legislature to improve industry access techniques.
It's true that many oilfields, like the Lafitte in Jefferson Parish and Bully Camp in Terrebonne, have destroyed marshes beyond this simple repair. But many more oilfields and canals are closer in, and remain relatively intact--for now. Despite the fact that 7 of 10 wells are unused for any current or future purpose, all of the canals remain.
As measured by a Gulf Restoration Network team, using SONRIS and other public data, the direct benefits of a systematic restoration of these ten thousand cuts include over 7000 acres of marsh for the cost of one large CWPPRA project (500 acres).
There are even more canals that could be restored if the oil industry were asked to find alternative, shallower-draft access, or to use broadcast spraying rather than keeping spoil mounds.
The indirect benefits of slowing and de-channelizing water flow are an order of magnitude larger, if recent CWPPRA and CPRA proposals in Maurepas basin and Des Allemands are close to correct. By backfilling old railroad grades, restoration of sheet flow is a part of the river restoration in the Maurepas River Restoration on Hope Canal--the only difference here is that these water blockages don't belong to Big Oil.
Sport boats do not need the 6-8 foot draft of an access canal; and this practice usually does not fill in the entire canal, but leaves a canal shallow enough for vegetation which acts as fish habitat. The National Park Service has recently completed part of an ongoing project to restore oil canals on its land-- some canals are completely restored, some are left open for recreation, and some have been enhanced with small freshwater marsh plantings.
Even if a systematic effort to restore unused canals is not as lucrative for the state as large scale megaprojects, There are still many ecological advantages to the industry following the spirit or letter of the law and doing its part for coastal restoration. At the very least, the state will look more presentable as it seeks 40 billion more dollars for the Master Plan.
With the Master Plan, the state has a unique opportunity to define the liability of the oil and gas industry, in a way that will reduce uncertainty for their investors. Restoring coastal marshes, however, is certainly essential for our continued residence in coastal Louisiana.
Scott Eustis, M.S. is the Coastal Wetland Specialist for GRN